Facebook Is Now The Federal Election Commission, But With More Secrets

Congratulations, Mark Zuckerberg, your private empire gets to regulate election spending.

WASHINGTON ― In what looked like a presidential address with a distinct Silicon Valley aesthetic, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed his private online nation of 2 billion users on Thursday from his glass-walled office space. He went live to explain how Facebook will henceforth respond to efforts by nation-states and private actors to use the social media platform to influence U.S. elections.

Zuckerberg detailed a nine-point plan. The most important of these new policies involves a requirement that “pages” disclose which ads they have purchased to run elsewhere on Facebook. Under federal law, online electoral ads are not currently required to provide the same level of disclosure or disclaimers as television and print ads do.

“When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they’re required by law to disclose who paid for them,” Zuckerberg said. “But you still don’t know if you’re seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we’re going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook.”

The disclosure policy will be rolled out over the coming months, Zuckerberg said. Facebook will also “work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

The new policies follow the company’s revelation last week that the Russian Internet Research Association ran popular Facebook pages and purchased on-site ads during the 2016 election in an effort to drive participation in actual rallies and protests that targeted immigrants and Muslims and supported President Donald Trump’s campaign.

Facebook has already turned over copies of those pages and ads to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s alleged influence campaign in last year’s election and the possibility that Trump’s campaign was somehow involved. The company also announced on Thursday that it would hand over that advertising material to congressional investigators.

Zuckerberg’s address to his nation, carried on Facebook Live, showed a corporate CEO announcing decisions that will govern an important aspect of public elections, including campaign finance, spending and election integrity issues. The new policies have been crafted by a private company with no public input and no democratic mechanism for discussion. Facebook has essentially taken on part of the role of the Federal Election Commission through self-regulation ― which worries some people.

“Facebook took an important step forward, but that a single company has this kind of power shows clearly that we urgently need legal reforms to mandate disclosure online,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation.

“Based on what they’ve written, this is a good move by Facebook and it will add some much needed transparency to online political spending,” said Adam Smith, communications director for the campaign finance reform group Every Voice. “But a voluntary company policy isn’t government regulation. The FEC still needs to act and update its regulations to reflect how modern campaigns are run.”

The fact that Facebook came up with its own regulation plan can be blamed directly on the FEC’s failure to deal with the issue of online political advertising disclosure. To be more specific, it can be blamed on the three Republican FEC commissioners who refused to fully extend disclosure and disclaimer rules to online ads.

In 2014, Ann Ravel, then the Democratic chairwoman of the FEC, proposed a meeting to discuss extending those rules online. Most online advertising was exempt from the disclaimer requirements under a previous rule-making that determined it would be too burdensome to place the disclaimers on small online ads. In doing so, the FEC treated these ads much the same way it treats skywriting. Of course, political campaigns spend hundreds of millions of dollars on online advertising each election and quite a bit less on skywriting.

The immediate response to Ravel’s proposed discussion of a possible rule change was hysterical. Republican FEC Commissioner Lee Goodman went on Fox News and accused her of trying to regulate all online speech. “If we start regulating free YouTube posts, I want you to see what we’d be doing,” he said. “We would be regulating the speech itself and not the expenditure for speech.”

Conservative news sites claimed this was a liberal plot to censor conservative speech and Ravel received a steady stream of death threats. The three Republican commissioners voted against any action.

And now in steps Facebook to write its own rules for disclosure ― rules that may sound good but be impossible to implement in any meaningful way.

Take this passage from Zuckerberg’s speech: “Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser’s page and see the ads they’re currently running to any audience on Facebook.”

Does this mean that every page will have to host a database of every ad it’s currently running on Facebook? Most online advertising campaigns use A/B testing. This means they run multiple variations of ads targeting different groups to see which ones get the best response rate. As Michael Whitney, who worked on online advertising for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pointed out, the Trump campaign was running 40,000 to 50,000 different online ads on an ordinary day. Is it possible to require a politically oriented page to host tens or hundreds of thousands of ads?

Consider another promise from Zuckerberg: “[W]e will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

Who will Facebook actually work with and what will the process be? As a public agency, the FEC has rules on publicity and openness for the meetings it holds to discuss new or revised rules on election spending. As a private corporation, Facebook has no obligation to be transparent in the ways it writes its policies. In fact, it has thrived on the opacity of both its algorithms and its bottom-line reason for existence, which is to collect user data and monetize it through the online advertising markets that it owns.

Americans will have to sit back and hope that one of the five most profitable companies in the United States will choose to keep them informed on how their elections will be governed. What could go wrong?

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