Facebook admits it cannot keep track of political ads on its platform

8 Nov 2019

Image: PA Media

Facebook said it is still reliant on users to flag issues that it may have missed.

Facebook has admitted it is unable to track all political adverts on its platforms, as the company faces continued pressure to ban them entirely.

Within days of the UK general election campaign getting under way, a number of posts have been targeted at users despite clearly failing to comply with the social network’s own rules on political advertising.

In a conference call with journalists ahead of the 12 December election, Facebook said it was better prepared than ever for dealing with misinformation and had set up a special operations centre where staff would work to combat the misuse of the platform.

‘We are not going to catch everything and we know we are not going to catch everything’

However, asked by the PA news agency what Facebook was doing to stop political advertisers getting round its rules, Rob Leathern, director of product for its business integrity team, said the company was still reliant on users to flag things it had missed.

“It’s important to realise we are not going to be perfect, we are continually improving and there is a lot of improvement as we track this across global elections,” he said.

“We do rely on people who use the platform to also provide feedback to us about how we can continue to improve those systems.”

One such advert taken down in recent days was published by a page called the Fair Tax Campaign, a lobbying group run by former Boris Johnson aide Alex Crowley.

The sponsored advert asked: “Could you afford an extra £214 each month? That’s what Labour’s tax plans would mean for everyone.”

The ad was taken down after the page failed to label it as political, which would have required it to display who paid to have it promoted in users’ feeds.

An advert by the Fair Tax Campaign was taken down by Facebook for being incorrectly labelled (PA Media)

Transparency and accountability

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, added: “We are not going to catch everything and we know we are not going to catch everything. You have to prepare when you are working in a security perspective for the world in which you might not catch everything.

“That has to be part of the strategy. Transparency means even the ones that we do miss, we can be held accountable. Being held accountable in that way isn’t always comfortable but it’s really important as many eyes and as many experts can engage with this as possible.”

Senior figures at the social network also said they were yet to find evidence of any widespread foreign operations aimed at disrupting the UK election campaign.

Gleicher continued: “If we had seen coordinated, inauthentic behaviour targeting the UK, you would know about it.

“That commitment is important for us because it means that people know that until we talk about this, we’re actually not seeing it – we’re looking, but we’re not seeing it.”

Facebook also announced plans to improve transparency after a number of pages were able to post political adverts despite offering no clear information about who was operating them.

In one such example, a pro-Brexit page named the Mainstream Network posted a series of sponsored posts throughout 2018 encouraging users to email their MPs about Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

The page was estimated to have spent more than £250,000 on these ads in just over 10 months, according to consultancy group 89up. Despite this, no information was offered on the platform about who posted or paid for the adverts.

The social network said its policy would now require those running such “opaque” pages to give clear information about who runs them or face being shut down.

— PA Media