Without new laws, Facebook has no reason to fix its broken ad system

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In recent days, both Vice News and Business Insider have put Facebook’s political ad transparency efforts to the test ahead — and the results are not good. Yesterday, Vice was able to easily game the “Paid for by” disclosure on political ads, getting false disclosures approved in the name of all 100 sitting US senators. Facebook approved the ads after the purchaser was able to verify their own identity with a postcard showing that they were a US resident. From there, they could decide for themselves whose name would be listed under the “Paid for by” tag.

Facebook’s ads have been a source of frustration for lawmakers for years, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 elections when it was discovered that Russian influence agents were able to place political ads involving US politics on the platform. Bills have been introduced to hold these platforms accountable and federal agencies have launched investigations, but everything so far has fallen flat. As of right now, Facebook has no legal restrictions on how it fights false political ads, and no outside incentive to stop scammy election tactics.

Some of those regulators are already working on rules that would rein in Facebook, although any enforcement will be too late for the upcoming midterms. The Federal Elections Commission is currently considering a notice of proposed rule-making that would classify “internet communication” on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as “public communication,” therefore requiring explicit disclaimers when an ad is sponsored by a politician or political entity. The agency declined to comment when reached by The Verge.

Facebook has been working on its own transparency measures continuously since the 2016 election, but it’s not clear how successful those measures have been. Last October, Facebook announced that it would be increasing this effort to combat false political advertising by requiring advertisers to verify their identities. When these standards were first announced, Facebook Ads vice president Rob Goldman wrote in the blog post, “when it comes to advertising on Facebook, people should be able to tell who the advertiser is and see the ads they’re running, especially for political ads,” he said. “That level of transparency is good for democracy and it’s good for the electoral process.”

But this effort only came after an extensive and damaging influence campaign in the 2016 election, including numerous ads placed by Russian agents in violation of federal election laws. Ever since, Facebook has been the target of close scrutiny from lawmakers. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced the Honest Ads Act last year in response to many of those concerns. The bill would amend one of the biggest campaign reform acts, the BCRA, to force paid internet and digital advertising to adhere to the same standards as television and radio. Larger online platforms like Facebook would be required by law to maintain a public file on these advertisements which would include who paid for ads totaling over $500, how many views the ads attained, the rates charged, and contact information for the purchaser.

Just days after the bill was announced, Facebook published a blog post laying out its new effort to combat false political advertising. In the months following this announcement, Facebook upped the ante on ad disclosures, and in April, the company announced that it would “endorse and implement” the bill’s requirements on their own.

“Election interference is a problem that’s bigger than any one platform, and that’s why we support the Honest Ads Act,” Mark Zuckerberg said in a separate blog post.

After Facebook implemented its own rules and agreed to adhere to the Honest Ads Act, all momentum on the bill stalled. The bill had bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House, but fizzled out as Congress awaited Zuckerberg’s testimony on Capitol Hill before taking any action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is known for his expansive take on the first amendment, also questioned the necessity for the bill and has yet to bring it up for a vote. In light of Vice’s reporting, it’s fair to question how genuine Facebook was in its support for the bill.

But without any real requirements put in place by Congress or the Federal Elections Commission, there are no penalties for vulnerabilities in Facebook’s ad disclosure methods. Sen. Klobuchar, who had a false ad by Vice News approved in her name, said in a statement to The Verge, “While I appreciate Facebook’s work to increase transparency, it is clear that they need to take stronger action to prevent the posting of fake ads.”

“This report also highlights why we must pass the Honest Ads Act which would require strong disclaimer and disclosures for online political ads and impose penalties against those who fail to comply,” she said.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), a sponsor on the House version of the same bill voiced similar sentiments. “Paid political advertising should be subject to the same disclosure requirements regardless of what form it takes—the Honest Ads Act I introduced would assure such,” Coffman said to The Verge. “The American people deserve to know who’s paying for the ads they see on the Internet just as much as they do the ads they see on TV or hear on the radio.”

But for now, Facebook insists that the ad database and the “Paid for by” disclosures are only part of their greater transparency plans. “This is also one piece of our broader efforts to bring greater transparency to ads related to politics on Facebook – an advertiser must also confirm their identity and location in the US before placing these ads,” said Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management.

With the addition of the ads database, Facebook is electing third-party groups and the press to hold these bad actors accountable for the false ads, not the platform itself. Leathern said, “We know we can’t do this alone and by housing these ads for up to seven years, people, regulators, third-parties and watchdog groups can hold these groups more accountable.”

Still, it’s unlikely that many users are concerned with spotting and flagging false ads, especially if compared to how authentic users were tricked into propagating Russian-sponsored memes over the platform throughout the last election.