These changes will put Facebook ad disclosures on par with the types of disclosures currently required of political ads on radio and TV, says Brendan Fischer, director of Federal Election Commission reform at the Campaign Legal Center. “Because there’s really no transparency requirements for digital ads at all right now, anything that would bring more transparency to digital ads would be a step forward,” Fischer said.
All of these changes present new and unprecedented barriers for online hoaxers and propagandists, like Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which built large audiences using divisive Facebook Pages and purchased ads to expand their reach. One of those pages, called Blacktivist, amassed 500,000 followers, more than the real Black Lives Matter Facebook Page, raising questions about how Blacktivist’s behavior could go undetected by Facebook. To address this blind spot, Facebook will now require operators of large Pages to be authenticated as well, and will give their followers information on the content that Page shares and any name changes it may have made in the past. The company did not, however, define what constitutes a large Page, provide details on what the authentication process will entail, or clarify what specific information followers will be able to see. A Facebook spokesperson told WIRED those details will be shared at a later date.
Until now, Facebook has focused primarily on vetting explicitly political ads, which mention a candidate by name or are purchased by a candidate or political party. That left open a gaping loophole for the type of fear-mongering ads about immigration and Islam that the Internet Research Agency purchased, several of which never referenced the 2016 election or a candidate at all.
The Honest Ads Act, which Zuckerberg named in his post, aims to close this loophole by requiring digital platforms to disclose who paid for ads about issues of “national legislative importance.” That legislation has yet to move through Congress, but in a recent interview with WIRED, Zuckerberg indicated that Facebook would implement some of its ideas regardless. “I think it will end up being good for our community and good for the internet if internet services live up to a lot of the same standards, and even go further than TV and traditional media have had to in advertising—that just seems logical,” Zuckerberg said.
In a statement Friday, Democratic senator Mark Warner, one of the sponsors of the Honest Ads Act, lauded the move. “Most of the paid ads the Internet Research Agency ran on Facebook prior to the 2016 election didn’t mention Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—but they did mention divisive political issues like guns, LGBT rights, immigration, and racial issues. That’s why today’s announcement by Facebook is so important, and I would encourage all of the platform companies to follow suit as we work toward making the Honest Ads Act the law of the land, ensuring that political ads sold online abide by the same disclosure rules as TV and radio ads.”
With his testimony before a joint hearing of two Senate committees looming Tuesday and another in the House set for Wednesday, Zuckerberg has rushed to release new details about how Facebook is trying to clean up the mess it made during the 2016 election. In addition to this overhaul of political ads, Facebook announced new restrictions on app developer tools this week. The changes limit the amount of data that apps can ask Facebook users for. This decision follows a swirling scandal about the unauthorized access of up to 87 million Facebook users’ data by a British firm called SCL and its American offshoot Cambridge Analytica.