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The Facebook loophole that makes political advertising look like normal content – Mother Jones


Facebook advertising library; Mother jones illustration

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The federal government has strict disclosure requirements for political advertisements on television, radio and print media, but the Internet remains the wild west for political content. In 2016, campaigns, super PACs, dark money groups, and Russia were able to buy ads without telling viewers where they came from. Last year, Facebook announced two new guidelines to prevent control from Washington. First, ads for candidate and political issues would now have a disclaimer at the top stating who paid for the ad. Second, by clicking this disclaimer, viewers would be redirected to a new “ad library” where they can see who else has seen the ad by state, age, and gender.

But Facebook left a gaping void in this system: when a user shares a political ad, the disclaimer disappears for anyone who sees the shared ad, as does the ability to click through to the ad library. Civil rights and electoral security experts have warned Facebook that this loophole is ripe for abuse. Several campaign finance experts said they were surprised when Mother jones she asked, fearing that this loophole could lead to viral, misleading content paid for by unknown political actors.

“The public has a right to know who is trying to influence their vote,” says Brendan Fischer, campaign finance and ethics expert at the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center. “For political actors who want to influence the public undetected, creating posts to go viral would be an obvious way to do so, and possibly legal.”

There are two lines of text at the top of every ad on Facebook. First, the ad is tagged with the name of the entity that paid for it. Below that is the disclaimer line that contains “Sponsored” and then “Paid By” followed by the entity name. When an ad is shared, the first line continues, but the disclaimer line disappears. If the source of the ad is not easily identifiable, e.g. For example, if it is a candidate’s name, it can be difficult to determine where the ad came from or if it was an ad at all. The result is that an ad from a candidate’s campaign will still be recognized as campaign-related content, but ads from super PACs or third-party groups may not clearly appear as ads.

The loophole creates an incentive for political groups, and perhaps even hostile nations, to draft ads that go viral.

People are more likely to trust information that doesn’t appear to be a paid ad, but rather content shared by someone in their social circle. “It’s just a basic social psychology that we tend to believe things when we think they come from people we trust or who share our interests,” says Bret Schafer, the social media and propaganda team at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“So much of what we see on social media is shared by people we know or second-hand connections,” says Ian Vandewalker, an attorney who focuses on campaign finance and voting at the Brennan Center for Justice. “This is how things go viral, true or false.”

This creates an incentive for political groups, and perhaps even hostile nations, to draft ads that go viral. Facebook users will see a disclaimer when viewing an ad in their feed directly from the creator. However, the more people share an ad, the more likely it is that a particular user will receive it through a friend and not see the disclaimer. The name of the page behind the ad is still displayed, but the name can be anything – a generic name if it is actually from an interest group, or an American-sounding name if it is actually from abroad. (Facebook has put in place some certification requirements to ensure foreign actors don’t run political ads.) Schafer points out that a super-PAC or other outside group could place an ad and then mobilize backers to distribute it as regular content which eliminates the disclaimer in the process. “It just seems to be a loophole that can easily be exploited,” says Schäfer.

“It’s a big loophole,” agrees David Brody, a lawyer with the Civil Rights Attorney Committee who specializes in technology issues. “It seems like it is more about the priorities of your advertising business model than the well-being of the users.”

It’s one thing to lose a sponsor tag for a product where the purpose of the ad is still obvious. It looks different with political content. “It doesn’t matter how it happened [a user’s] Eyeballs, whether it’s a paid advertisement or a friend of hers shared or whatever, they’re seeing content, ”says Brody. “And if this content is a political advertisement or political message, they should know that this is where it came from and who paid for it.”

Technically, split ads are still available in the ad library, but the library is so difficult to search through that even if someone has seen content and wants to verify that it is a paid ad, it’s virtually impossible to find it. Brody believes that the advertising library’s poor search capabilities are an active decision by Facebook to limit transparency. “That was intentional,” he says. “If they wanted to create a good user interface, it was easy, they know how to do it.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the company is issuing a weekly report with top advertisers to create more transparency. The spokesman also said that by visiting a group or individual’s page, a user could find a link to the group’s ads in the ad library. However, when a group is posting many ads – some advertisers are posting thousands at a time – it is difficult to find the ad that got a user down that rabbit hole in the first place.

Facebook announced its first steps in October 2017 to make political ads subject to disclosure requirements, shortly after a bipartisan group in Congress passed a law, the Honest Ads Act, to bring internet ads in line with the rules that already apply to print , Television and radio counted. (The bill was recently reintroduced but has not yet been voted on.) The following February, civil rights activists warned Facebook about its policy of dropping the disclaimer on shared ads, arguing that it was ripe for abuse through campaigns, super-PACs and. be themselves countries that want to distribute political content that cannot easily be traced back to its source.

When Facebook hired an outside consultant, Laura Murphy, to conduct a civil rights impact review, civil rights groups raised the issue with Murphy, according to a lawyer involved in the review process. The company argues that The disclaimer should only tell users if they see an ad because someone paid for it. If an ad is reposted, the sponsor doesn’t pay to have the ad shown to everyone who views it because of that approval.

But that line of reasoning defies the whole purpose of the political ad disclaimer: when people see a political ad, they rate it based on where it came from and whether it is an ad that is meant to influence their voice.

“It just seems like a loophole that can easily be exploited,” says one social media expert.

During the 2016 election, the Russian government attempted to support Donald Trump’s campaign through both paid advertising and fake accounts pretending to be American, and at times attempted to discourage African Americans and Muslims from voting. The Trump campaign confirmed Bloomberg that it tries to convince African Americans not to support Hillary Clinton through Facebook advertising. Experts believe the 2020 disclosure gap could be a way for super PACs and dark money groups to spread shameful messages that few viewers can trace back to the original source.

The Honest Ads Act would create disclosure requirements for online ads. However, experts who reviewed this legislation weren’t sure if Facebook’s clearance gap would actually be closed when the law is passed. and nefarious actors like the Kremlin’s troll farm are not allowed to obey new rules. However, Vandewalker says that if there are rules that require a disclaimer, it will be easier to detect, remove, and investigate content when content comes up that doesn’t have one.

After proxies bought ads for the Kremlin in 2016, Facebook added new rules requiring all advertisers to register with a U.S. ID, the last four digits of the administrator’s social security number, and a domestic address. But Facebook allows advertisers to write their own disclaimers and doesn’t appear to be reviewing them, which means groups could essentially associate an ad with anyone. Last fall, Vice News placed ads on behalf of all 100 US Senators that linked to blank Facebook pages and Facebook authorized She. Advertisers can also create groups with harmless sounding names to hide the sources behind an ad – a common practice in the oil industry uncovered from ProPublica.

Vandewalker says the Facebook loophole encourages political actors to create viral content that essentially turns into free advertising. “It also happens that the way of doing this – generating outrage and appeals to political tribalism – also appears to be bad for our political culture,” he says, “and the accompanying increase in extremism and institutional blockades. “


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