Facebook Officially Launches “Issues Ads” Tags to Increase Political Transparency

Facebook has now officially launched its new political ads disclosure tags, which will highlight “issues-based” ads in News Feeds, and give users the ability to learn more about who’s funding them, along with access to an archive of all ad content related to each subject.

As explained by Facebook:

Starting today, all election-related and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the US must be clearly labeled – including a “Paid for by” disclosure from the advertiser at the top of the ad. This will help ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad – which is especially important when the Page name doesn’t match the name of the company or person funding the ad.”

The new measures – which Facebook first announced last October – aim to help better inform users about the motivation and funding behind such posts, which should help to limit outside interference in elections.

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook’s been working to add in new ways to eliminate electoral meddling by foreign groups – reportedly, non-local activist groups have been using Facebook, and other social networks, to interfere with elections over the last few years, not just the 2016 US Presidential race. By highlighting the funding sources behind each ad, and also (as shown in the above video) revealing the specific targeting data, users will be better equipped to understand why they’re seeing each promoted post, which should, theoretically, help reduce interference.

This comes after the recent release of more than 3,500 issues-based ads which Russian-backed groups used to sway American voters in the lead up to the 2016 election.

As you can see from this example, part of the problem with the generic definition of ‘political’ ads is that not all such ads appear to be from political-affiliated groups, or are clearly noted as such. That’s why Facebook’s had to broaden its definition to “issues ads”, which will enable them to capture more of these approaches, and lessen their impact.

To identify the right issues to target, Facebook worked with the Comparative Agendas Project (CAP) to establish their list of 20 issues that will require additional disclosure. The full list – which you can see here – includes ‘education’, ‘civil rights’, ‘crime’, ‘guns’, ‘health’ and the slightly vague ‘values’.

“Here’s how it works in practice. Education is one issue listed among the 20. But our policy would only apply to those ads trying to achieve a political purpose, for example, education reform or a new student loan policy, not ads for a university or scholarship. Other cases are more nuanced. An ad from an immigration lawyer would not be tagged as an issue ad. But if essentially the same ad were to also advocate for immigration reform in any way, it would be considered political and be subject to our policy.”

Users can tag any issues-based ads which do not have the political disclosure listing by tapping on the three dots icon in the top right corner of the ad and going through the reporting flow.

It’s a good initiative from Facebook, and clearly, one which is needed, but it’ll be difficult to stop political interference and voter manipulation outright – something Facebook itself has acknowledged.

Indeed, as we upload more and more of our personal data – to Facebook, via fitness trackers, supermarket loyalty cards, etc. – all of that information could, theoretically, fall into the hands of those who could use it for political gain, manipulating our responses by poking at our psychological weak points.

This is a problem that’s unprecedented, because there’s never been the same level of data available. The common – and now old – stat quoted is that some 90% of all the world’s data has been generated within the last two years, which, even though it was originally mentioned a few years back, is still indicative of the new frontier, that the vast majority of data insights we now have access to simply wasn’t available in times past. That’s what makes it so concerning, because we don’t fully understand how such insights can be used – we can’t, because we’ve never been in this situation.

Of course, the other “solution” is that Facebook could simply outlaw such ads, a suggestion which somewhat ignores the broader issue, but does better fit the narrative that Zuck and Co are more driven by revenue than anything else.

For their part, Facebook says they opted not to ban such ads in the interest of parity.

“…banning political ads on Facebook would tilt the scales in favor of incumbent politicians and candidates with deep pockets. Digital advertising is typically more affordable than TV or print ads, giving less well-funded candidates a relatively economical way to reach their future constituents. Similarly, it would make it harder for people running for local office — who can’t afford larger media buys — to get their message out. And issue ads also help raise awareness of important challenges, mobilizing people across communities to fight for a common cause.”

How you feel about Facebook’s justification will relate to your view of the company overall, but it does make sense. In the new media landscape, social is a key communications channel, giving more candidates a platform. They could still be drowned out via more expensive, TV-led campaigns, but the capacity to reach people on Facebook and Instagram does level the playing field somewhat, and works to Facebook’s broader goals to connect communities.

So will it work? Will Facebook’s efforts quell manipulation by political groups? It largely depends – for one, there’s no guarantee that users are going to click through to find out more on each ad. Facebook can’t be held responsible for that, but there are various examples which show that people are more likely to merely latch onto headlines that support their existing perspectives, as opposed to actively trying to inform themselves. But even so, it could still quell debate if, in the comments, for example, someone with an opposing viewpoint were to highlight the funding details.

What we may also see is that politically motivated groups will simply turn to other platforms to shift the tide. Twitter has already come under scrutiny for the prevalence of political-backed bots on the platform (and has introduced its own political ad labels), while reports have suggested that other social networks are already being utilized for the same purpose. Without Facebook’s resources, they’ll be harder for them to detect, and deflect – but then again, with smaller audiences, the influence should also be relative.

And as noted, there are the many, many other sources of data, which is growing every day. The simple fact is that more data means more ways to for such insights to be used against us, without our knowledge. We don’t know how that will go, because it’s a problem we’ve never faced.

But one thing is for sure – following the revelations in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, you can bet that every political group in the world is looking at its data options for their own campaigns. Not all are going to play by the rules, which means we’ll likely be combating this issue for some time yet. 

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