On Thursday, Facebook rolled out its political ad archive, which will house every advertisement the company’s fleet of moderators deem to be politically motivated, and Twitter announced plans to eventually do the same. Both companies have also committed to marking these types of ads with disclaimers, which will help users understand exactly what they’re seeing, who paid for the ad, and whether a particular candidate was involved.
Any step towards transparency is a net positive, sure, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that giving users generic information about the political ads they’re being officially, formally served through these companies’ ad networks is as little as Facebook and Twitter could possibly do. What’s more, it fails to account for the much more insidious genre of political influence that got tech companies into this mess to begin with: grassroots-style disinformation campaigns. The seemingly-genuine (and, often, crazy popular) groups, pages, and accounts created by bad actors with the intent to deepen the partisan divide or just sow chaos.
This is a reactionary measure by Facebook and Twitter, rather than proactive one, and that’s a major problem. It’s far too late in the game for this to be enough. Budget, audience breakdown, total impressions, general buyer info — none of this is new information to Facebook and Twitter. They’ve just never had an incentive to display it externally until now, after months of sticky political backlash.
The only actually new piece of information these companies appear to be collecting is a verifiable form of identification for both the advertiser and (if applicable) the candidate who authorized the message. While this is better than nothing, it’s noticeably lacking in anything beyond the most basic requirements. Yes, Facebook will now indicate which group or individual bought a particular advertisement by disclosing their name in the “Paid for by” section of the ad, but Facebook’s sole means of obtaining this information is through self-disclosure by the advertiser themself. A Facebook spokesperson confirmed this in a statement to Techcrunch.
“After requesting clarification about exactly who and what should appear in the “paid for by” section of ads and the archive, a Facebook spokesperson told me that the Page admin who purchases the ad chooses who to disclose as having paid,” wrote Josh Costine. “Facebook requires that this disclosure info be complete and accurate, and that advertisers follow applicable laws.”
However, this system doesn’t seem to account for the use of patsies, shell corporations, super PACs, or any other standard tool of political malfeasance that we’ve seen used to great effect over the last three years. If a particular campaign or committee really wanted to blanket Facebook with ads without tying its actual name to the purchase, all it would have to do is funnel its money into any of the countless PACs, companies, or foundations that most campaigns regularly use anyway.
It’s difficult to say if there even is a way to separate the problems from the system at this point, but a solution isn’t going to come from playing catch-up years after the fact. If anything, it’ll be the result of proactive, forward-thinking problem solving. (Maybe even the wrath of the now-official GDPR.)