Facebook reforms political ad rules ahead of EU elections

29 Mar 2019

Image: © lefebvre_jonathan/Stock.adobe.com

Proof of residence among stringent new rules to counter any potential ‘gaming’ of Facebook in run-up to European Parliament elections in May.

More than a year on since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, it appears that tough lessons have been taken aboard by social media colossus Facebook.

Facebook also appears to have learned lessons from the 2018 Irish abortion referendum regarding concerns that overseas interests were using the platform to influence voting.

‘We’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to proactively identify abuse’

Future Human

The social network is introducing new rules aimed at protecting the integrity of the upcoming EU Parliament elections, including a requirement of advertisers to provide verifiable proof that they reside in the country where their ads will be targeting users.

The move comes just ahead of European elections in May where citizens from across the EU will vote in new MEPs.

The new political advertising restrictions will launch across the EU today (29 March) and follow up on similar roll-outs in the US, UK and India.

The rules will require advertisers to disclose who paid for the ad, correcting a major criticism in the past where advertisers didn’t disclose their real identities. Private advertisers can remain private but their name will be marked as ‘verified’ by the social network based on their credentials.

Will verification end abuse of social media during elections?

“To help prevent abuse and interference, all EU advertisers will need to be authorised in their country to run ads related to the European parliamentary elections,” explained Richard Allan, vice-president of global policy solutions at Facebook.

“We will ask them to submit documents and use technical checks to confirm their identity and location. We will be using a combination of automated systems and user reporting to enforce this policy. We recognise that some people can try and work around any system but we are confident this will be a real barrier for anyone thinking of using our ads to interfere in an election from outside of a country.

“Importantly, this means that all the people who are reaching you with ads identified as related to politics or issues have been authorised as being in your country and will be required to provide accurate information about who they are. This will help relevant authorities investigate them if they have any suspicions. There are many issues that only election regulators can effectively decide – for example, if rules on campaign finance have been followed – and our new tools will help them in this important work.”

Allan said that to increase transparency, all ads related to politics and issues on Facebook and Instagram will be labelled ‘paid for’ at the top of the ad.

“This means that you can see who is paying for the ad and, for any business or organisation, their contact details. When you click on the label, you’ll be able to see more information such as the campaign budget associated with an individual ad, how many people saw it, and their age, location and gender. We are inviting all political campaigns to start the ads authorisation process now and we will start to block political or issue ads that have not been properly registered from mid-April.”

Facebook has also build a new tool called Ad Library to make it easier for people to find out about political or issue-based ads on the social network.

When users click ‘see ad details’ they will see information on the number of times the ad was viewed and demographics about the audience reached.

“As well as allowing anyone to browse and search in the library, we are expanding access to our API so news organisations, regulators, watchdog groups and people can hold advertisers and us more accountable,” Allan explained.

He said that news publishers’ ads will be exempt from the new rules.

“We recognise that media coverage of elections and important issues is distinct from advocacy or electoral ads, even if those news stories may refer to parties and candidates and receive paid distribution on Facebook. That is why we are working to exempt ads by news publishers from these new tools. We do not have the systems in place yet to exempt news stories in all countries but will be rolling this out across the EU as we build out the necessary infrastructure.”

Clearly Facebook has done a lot of growing up in the last year and, with 2.3bn users across the world, it is finally realising its responsibilities in affecting the democratic process. Moving fast and breaking things was cute for a start-up, but not for a digital entity with a bigger population than China.

Allan said it is accepted by the social media giant that more transparency will lead to increased accountability and responsibility over time, not just for Facebook but for entities that use the platform to advertise around issues and elections.

“We’re investing heavily in more people and better technology to proactively identify abuse. But if you see an ad which you believe is related to politics or issues and isn’t labelled, please report it. Facebook will review the ad, and if it falls under our political advertising policy we’ll take it down and add it to the Ad Library.

“These changes will not prevent abuse entirely. We’re up against smart, creative and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse. But we believe that they will help prevent future interference in elections on Facebook. And that is why they are so important.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years