How Facebook might change its political-ad policy

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has floated changes for political ads.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has floated changes for political ads.
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Facebook has scrambled to come up with its rules to address the simmering anger over the online political ads. But the problem Facebook would be addressing isn’t entirely clear:

  • Lies from foreign meddlers set to foment discord?
  • Dishonesty from fly-by-night—but American—dirty tricksters?
  • A lack of a unified national conversation about the issues?
  • False ads from President Trump’s reelection campaign (or the resulting PR crisis)?
  • A lack of transparency around political ads, generally?

Whatever the problem Facebook might respond to, some possible solutions are emerging.

Facebook’s proposals—of which it may choose only some, or none—are more narrowly tailored responses than Google’s wholesale ban of microtargeting for political ads, earning Facebook some limited plaudits from political digital strategists. Many have pilloried Google’s move as a “cop out.”

Here’s a look at Facebook’s proposals, according to the Washington Post. Facebook told Quartz in a statement, “we are looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads.”

A 72-hour “quiet period” immediately before an election

Dirty tricks, online or offline, traditionally take place in the few days before an election, when some voters are just beginning to pay attention, consultants have leftover cash,  and there’s less time for watchdogs to investigate.

In late October 2018, a Democratic activist ran ads targeted at conservatives misleadingly implying that Ted Cruz was opposed to Trump. And an unknown person using the name “America Progress Now” ran ads urging liberals to vote for Green Party candidates in House and gubernatorial races.

The quiet period “might be a good idea,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic voter data firm, referring to the possibility of a quelling the late crush of dirty tricks. But, he told Quartz, Facebook is also one of the best places to reach voters quickly, meaning a quiet period could handicap efforts to debunk lies spread offline or elsewhere on the web.

And such a ban would likely hurt turnout efforts, especially from progressive organizations, according to progressive digital strategist Annie Levene. “A 72-hour ban ahead of elections could really damage to the work that organizations and campaigns do to turn out voters of color and young voters, basically anyone who is likely to have less information about where and how to vote,” said Levene, a partner at left-leaning campaign firm Rising Tide Interactive.

Republican strategist Eric Wilson calls the proposal “dumb,” saying it’s likely modeled off of Australia, where laws requiring everyone to vote make it less important for campaigns to push voters to turn out.

Limits on microtargeting

During the 2016 Republican primary, Ted Cruz’s campaign reportedly sought the 60 likely Iowa caucus-goers who would be swayed be a promise to legalize fireworks.

Facebook is apparently considering increasing the minimum size of a group of people to be targeted with an ad, from about 100 to a few thousand. This was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal. Targeting granular groups, as Cruz did, wouldn’t be possible any more—on Facebook.

But such targeting would still be possible on other platforms—or offline. “Consider that field teams, mail programs all do ‘microtargeting’ by mailing and literally walking up to individual households,” Levene told Quartz.

Labeling political ads as unverified 

The Post said that Facebook is considering marking all political ads to “indicate they have not been fact-checked.” It’s not clear how Facebook would do this.

Facebook recently began verifying some political advertisers’ identities with a tiny badge that either said “Confirmed Organization” or “About this ad.” It’s unclear whether users understand this distinction on the basis of that badge.

Facebook does fact-check some ordinary posts, and recently expanded its fact-checking program to Instagram, but has said it doesn’t want to be the arbiter of politicians’ speech. That policy, which allows politicians to post false ads, reportedly is the subject of much dissent inside Facebook. One apparent proponent of the status quo? Facebook board member, billionaire investor, and Trump supporter Peter Thiel.

Limiting the number of ads a single candidate can run at a time

Campaigns—especially Trump’s—extensively test the text, images, and videos in their ads, varying details as granular as the color of buttons to see what attracts the most donations or clicks. While color differences don’t pose a threat to American democracy, the sheer volume of ads make it hard for watchdogs to analyze what campaigns are up to.

Ad variants, though, may arise when candidate in a diverse district runs ads in multiple languages about multiple issues.

“It’s so difficult for campaigns to have genuine interactions with individuals, to have conversations with people about the issues that matter to them,” Bonier said. He gives the example of microtargeting enabling candidates to emphasize their gun control plans to likely supporters—without inspiring opposition from gun control opponents, as a TV ad or billboard might do.

A step toward fact-checking?

The Post also reports Facebook has floated “possibly requiring campaigns to have or share authoritative backup documentation for claims made in ads—though it was not clear what would count as authoritative.”

Details are scarce, but Levene is skeptical of such a system. “Who is to say who would get final say/if there would be an appeals system?” she told Quartz.

While Twitter banned ads for or about candidates entirely, and Google has banned most varieties of microtargeting for such ads, Facebook’s more narrowly-tailored proposals aren’t popular among political digital-ad practitioners.

“The increased scrutiny at targeting techniques isn’t a solution, it’s just an easy thing that networks can do without investing additional resources into actual fact checking,” Levene said.

Bonier said Facebook should vet advertisers and ads, using its discretion. Its staff could verify that only real organizations and people can run ads, exclude ads meant to play dirty tricks and ban bad actors—but without being limited to a predefined rules enforced largely by computers.

“No doubt, this is not an easy problem to solve. You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue, presumably,” he said. “And, the little thing about protecting our democracy. It seems worth investing in additional staff.”