Facebook is debuting a raft of new features aimed at bringing more transparency to advertising on the platform, in the wake of an ongoing scandal in which Russian trolls were able to purchase ads targeting the US electorate in the run-up to the 2016 election. The new features include a tool called View Ads, which allows users to see every active ad purchased on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and its partners. They were announced earlier this year and vetted in Canada. Now, the company is rolling View Ads out around the world.
“We’re providing much more transparency than any other advertising platform,” said Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in a meeting with reporters Thursday.
"The hope of the announcement today, making [Facebook] much more transparent than it was before, is that it will hold us accountable, it will hold advertisers accountable, but it will also give people the ability to find things that maybe shouldn't be up or find things that might be misleading so we can take action," she said.
The company is also expanding a feature it announced in April that allows users to see information on every political ad bought on its platforms, as well as so-called “issue ads” that touch on topics that might be construed as political, such as abortion or immigration. This tool gives users access to information on how much the ad cost, who was behind the ad, and the demographics of the audience it reached. Advertisers must also verify their identity and location before purchasing political or issue ads. Facebook rolled this political ad portal out in the United States in May, and now it’s launching in Brazil, as well, ahead of elections this fall.
“We have to take a deliberate approach to expanding to other countries,” said Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management.
The company's political ad tool leaves something to be desired. While it offers access to metrics on each individual ad, it's still impossible to look at an advertiser's overall purchasing behavior on Facebook to see who they're targeting in general and how. But Leathern said the company will release an API later this year that makes that kind of data crunching easier.
For years, Facebook resisted abiding by the same Federal Election Commission political advertising regulations that traditional forms of media, like radio and television, are required to follow. But the revelation last fall that Facebook and other tech platforms had sold ads to Russian propagandists has forced the companies that were manipulated by the Russian actors to change their tune. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all unveiled a variety of transparency measures aimed at heading off what they fear could be more draconian legislation if Congress is left to write the rules.
Already, Facebook has struggled to determine what types of ads qualify under its new policy. A number of media outlets have criticized the platform over the last month for labeling their ads political, despite only containing links to news stories. In response, Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, said in a blog post that the company would soon update its ad transparency database to distinguish between journalism content and genuine political advocacy, like ads for a specific candidate.
And yet, on Thursday, Sandberg made it clear that Facebook will continue to take a “broad” approach to transparency, even if it means slowing down the process for advertisers.
“Anything with political content gets flagged,” Sandberg said. “We decided our goal is transparency. We’re just erring on the side of being more transparent.”
Facebook is also extending that philosophy to Facebook Pages, even those that don’t purchase ads. That’s important given the fact that Russia’s Internet Research Agency was able to gather far more traction with Facebook users through regular old posts, as opposed to ads. While the IRA’s ads reached roughly 11 million Facebook users, according to the company, they reached some 126 million organically.
How exactly Facebook plans to combat that abuse on Pages is still an open question. On Thursday, the company announced a way for users to see when a Page was created and any name changes that Page has had in the past. But that wouldn’t do much to ensure the person behind the Page is actually, say, an engaged American citizen spreading awareness about an election, and not a troll sitting in St. Petersburg posing as one.
Sandberg said that fighting fake accounts is paramount to preventing Facebook and its other properties from being abused in the 2018 midterms as they were during the 2016 election, calling it "by far the most important action we’re taking."
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