Facebook's New Ad Rules Prove It's Basically In Charge Of Regulating Elections Now

Sure, this seems like the kind of thing a private company should be doing. Welcome to the Facebook Election Commission.
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Facebook began disclosing political advertising on its site on Thursday, two years after a Russian troll factory bought ads to influence the 2016 presidential election. The new policy is meant to shine light on the previously undisclosed ways that politicians and other groups aim to shift public opinion on elections and political issues. But the self-regulatory approach will occur at Facebook’s direction and without any public oversight.

The social media giant will require all election-related ads and many issue-related political ads placed on its platform and on Instagram to disclose the buyer’s identity, the advertising budget, how many people saw the advertisement and their demographic information ― age, location and gender. Starting from May 7, 2018, all ads will remain in a searchable archive for seven years.

Users will also be able to report advertising that they believe should be disclosed as political. The company says it will hire 3,000 to 4,000 content moderators to review these complaints, and will deploy machine-learning algorithms when possible. (You can read more about this plan on Facebook’s blog.)

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) questions witnesses during a committee hearing with examples of Russian-created Facebook pages behind him, Oct. 31, 2017.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) questions witnesses during a committee hearing with examples of Russian-created Facebook pages behind him, Oct. 31, 2017.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

In addition to ads that explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate, Facebook is also targeting issue-based advertising. The company explained in a blog post that it worked with the nonpartisan Comparative Agendas Project to select 20 issues that will be covered by the disclosure policy, ranging from abortion to foreign policy to Social Security. An ad calling for the Department of Education to ban the use of public student loans at for-profit colleges, for example, would need to be disclosed. An ad run by a specific for-profit college that simply promoted the school would not.

Facebook’s new policy follows the company’s revelation to Congress in 2017 that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian digital propaganda company that works with both the public and private sector in the country, purchased advertisements for a range of pages that sought to inflame American racial tensions and that, depending on the page, advocated for the election of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders. In some cases, these pages bought ads to gain followers in the U.S. and later called for voters to boycott the election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first announced plans to require political ad transparency in a speech from Facebook headquarters in September 2017.

While Facebook’s moves are supported by advocates of online political advertising disclosure, the new policy also highlights how the failure of elected officials and regulatory agencies to impose actual disclosure rules through the democratic process is enabling the private sector to assert its authority over the conduct of U.S. elections.

“The failure to regulate this space all together is a pretty abject failure.”

- John Wonderlich, Sunlight Foundation executive director

Facebook’s new disclosure plan is not bound by federal regulations and will not be overseen by the Federal Election Commission or the Federal Communications Commission. In 2014, Ann Ravel, then the chairwoman of the FEC, proposed a meeting to discuss the disclosure of online ads. Her Republican colleagues pilloried her for the suggestion, and conservative news sites claimed she was trying to destroy free speech and censor their views. Ravel received a torrent of anti-Semitic death threats, and the three FEC Republicans voted against a rule to mandate online ad disclosure.

“The failure to regulate this space all together is a pretty abject failure,” John Wonderlich, executive director of the pro-transparency nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, told HuffPost. “So, now we have private sector campaign finance regulation. That’s a pretty dystopian present.”

The public is now left with the Facebook Election Commission ― and maybe the Google Election Commission and the Twitter Election Commission. Both Google and Twitter have proposed some form of online ad disclosure on their respective platforms after they were also used by Russian trolls in 2016. For now, online political ad disclosure will be balkanized, as digital platforms will have different policies due to a lack of federal enforcement.

In some cases, that may result in stronger disclosure requirements than Congress or the FEC would mandate, as seen with Facebook’s broad issue-advertising disclosure approach. In other cases, though, the lack of public enforcement will likely result in worse outcomes. Indeed, that is also the case with Facebook, which launched a searchable archive of political ads that is only accessible if you have a Facebook account. This means a person must submit to Facebook’s terms and conditions, including the collection of personal data, if they want to learn about the election ads purchased by U.S. politicians. Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product, said on Twitter that the company is considering ways to open the archive to non-users. A Facebook spokesman said the company would not collect data on what people search for in the political ad archive in order to better target ads at them.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House energy and commerce committee in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2018.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House energy and commerce committee in Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a lead sponsor of the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill to officially mandate online ad disclosure, praised Facebook’s decision in a tweet but noted the underlying problems of industry self-regulation.

“Big step in the right direction ― and I’m glad Facebook followed through on my recommendations to improve upon earlier proposals,” Warner tweeted Thursday. “I’ll be pushing other companies to follow suit. But until we pass the #HonestAds Act, there’ll still be a patchwork of disclosure across social media.”

So far, the Republican-controlled Congress has refused to move the bill through committee or to the floor for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is a notorious opponent of any and all campaign finance regulation or disclosures.

Meanwhile, commissioners on the FEC, the nation’s actual election disclosure regulator, spent Thursday arguing over whether they should release a report on their 40th anniversary. That 40th anniversary was three years ago.

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