Facebook moves against secretive political advertising—beating MPs to the punch

22 September 2017 | Will Moy

Facebook has announced new rules to stop people running political advertising that can’t be traced. This is good news.

Facebook allows you to pay for adverts to appear in people’s newsfeeds—posts which say ‘sponsored’ above them. At the moment only the people who are being targeted can see those adverts. This means factcheckers and others can’t scrutinise what political parties are claiming online.

Full Fact has been calling for more transparency for some time. During the election we warned that these ‘dark ads’ were a bigger threat than made-up news. The volunteer project Who Targets Me? working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism also raised the profile of the problem.

Facebook said: “Going forward—and perhaps the most important step we're taking—we're going to make political advertising more transparent. When someone buys political ads on TV or other media, they're required by law to disclose who paid for them. But you still don't know if you're seeing the same messages as everyone else. So we're going to bring Facebook to an even higher standard of transparency. Not only will you have to disclose which page paid for an ad, but we will also make it so you can visit an advertiser's page and see the ads they're currently running to any audience on Facebook. We will roll this out over the coming months, and we will work with others to create a new standard for transparency in online political ads.”

The UK has laws to ensure that political adverts have to say who is running them, but they don’t apply online.

After the election, Baroness O’Neill introduced a draft law to ensure transparency for online advertising, which Full Fact helped to draft. As a Private Member’s Bill it stands little chance of becoming law. But it is one more step to make sure the government cannot ignore this issue.

How much good this announcement does will depend on the details. The Facebook announcement does not tell us:

  1. Whether advertising information will be published in formats computers can read. We already have advertising by bot, we must be able to have accountability by bot too.
  2. Whether that information on how political adverts are targeted will be public. This is vital. It matters enormously how many people are seeing an advert, and sometimes which people matters too.
  3. Who counts as a ‘political’ advertiser.

Now that Facebook has acted, the biggest question is how a multinational company has done more than the British parliament to safeguard our democracy.

Protections like these should be scrutinised by MPs and written in law, not in the terms and conditions of the internet platforms.

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