The United States of America has now fallen off the online disclosure cliff that Sunlight has warned of for years: the lack of transparency for political ad spending and related activity online created a significant vulnerability in our public accountability laws. While more transparency was rendered to TV stations, “dark ads” have flourished online. Last week’s reporting confirms that Facebook was used by Russians used to influence the 2016 election. The full extent of that interference is still not understood publicly, even now.
As we told Buzzfeed, highly targeted online ads now present a significant vulnerability for liberal democracies, especially since they are not covered by the comparatively strong legal oversight and public visibility that traditional radio, TV, and print ads are.
The Federal Communications Commission approved rules in 2016 that required TV stations and radio stations to publish their political advertising files online. This has added a digital twist to a decades-old requirement that political ad spending be publicly disclosed, in near real time, while technology companies, newly relevant as political ad vendors, continue to get a pass altogether from analogous public protections.
As the share of political advertising spent by campaigns on digital platforms grows, and more public time is spent on social networks, disclosure’s importance increases.
The stakes are higher than simply understanding who is buying ads to influence swing voters in the fall of 2018. Recent revelations about Russian interference in elections around the world have made the stakes for crystal clear. To what extent do our biggest social media platforms now present an unprecedented vulnerability for our public politics, violating the basic trust required for democracy to function?
The United States and every other liberal democracy now faces an existential threat, where hostile actors — including those whose opposed to democratic values — attempt or succeed in information warfare, introducing misinformation into our politics, governance and public debates, casting doubt on the integrity of our elections and eroding the core institutions designed to protect them.
While we are seeing significant investigations into 2016 online election spending, including from journalists at ProPublica as they crowdsource reporting of online political ads and federal investigators as they piece together the extent of foreign activities, these are no substitute for legal reforms that mandate public disclosure of political ad files online.
Former Federal Election Commissioner (FEC) Chairman Ann Ravel saw this coming in 2014 and the FEC didn’t act. Today, we think Facebook, Google, and other major platforms should be held to the same level of transparency as media companies, with a new disclosure requirement similar to longstanding requirements applied to the analog world.
Political spending is increasingly taking place online, and yet online ads have the least transparency. Reforms to regulations and disclosure are urgently needed. Public disclosure of political advertising online will help preserve accountability in our elections, ensure voters are informed about who is influencing their votes, and prevent corruption, foreign interference, and other malfeasance.
Over the weekend, we’ve received media inquiries and Congressional questions regarding many of these issues and our suggestions for remedy and reform. In the spirit of openness, here’s what we told journalists, researchers and Congressional staff — and what we see coming next.
Is the problem targeted ads in Facebook’s newsfeed? Or that disclosure of who paid for political ad is not required?
There are several issues here. The first problem is algorithmic opacity, where the black box of the newsfeed, search algorithm, or ad segmentation prevents watchdogs or regulators from understanding what ads are being shown to whom and when. ProPublica is going to try crowdsource this, but Facebook and other vendors could take many more steps to proactively disclose political advertising.
The second problem is the disclosure of the ads themselves, who paid for them, how much and when. This can be required to be disclosed by the purchaser (most often campaign and PACs), or by the recipient (in this case, Facebook). Vendors like Facebook should be proactively disclosing this information in a machine-readable, open format online to the public and election regulators. Facebook could even do that in real-time.
A third, related problem is paid or sponsored political activity online, where professional or fake accounts create public pressure through ubiquity and repetition. An approach similar to the FTC’s endorsement rules for social media for disclosing sponsored content may be viable for some of this activity. This disclosure or a linked disclaimer would hardly stop the kind of massive disruption suspected from paid Russian actors in the 2016 election. Congress, regulators and the public have to grapple with the reality of fake Americans on Facebook profiles and foreign propaganda outlets waging misinformation campaigns on Facebook Pages.
This month, Alex Stamos, chief security officer of the world’s largest social network gave the public a window into foreign information operations on Facebook and listed actions the company taken this year, including “technology improvements for detecting fake accounts and a series of actions to reduce misinformation and false news. Over the past few months, we have taken action against fake accounts in France, Germany, and other countries, and we recently stated that we will no longer allow Pages that repeatedly share false news to advertise on Facebook.”
If Facebook believes in “protecting the integrity of civic discourse,” we hope they won’t just “require advertisers on our platform to follow both our policies and all applicable laws” but support legislative reforms to disclose spending and ad content, remove “dark ads” from their platform, and create visual indicators for sponsored posts connected to disclaimers.
What other movement do you see besides Senator Mark Warner?
Per Politico, “Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) argued that there needs to be more information shared about who purchases social media ads, in light of the recent Facebook analysis. “I am calling on Congress to start erecting barriers against unfettered Russian influence over American voters online by establishing the same transparency and disclaimers for social media ads that exist in political TV advertisements. A political ad on TV must include a disclaimer so you know who paid for it, but that is not the case for political ads on Facebook or Twitter. That needs to change,” he said, in a statement. ”
We’ve seen significant interest from many other advocacy groups and coalition allies, including the Campaign Legal Center, which called on Facebook to disclose political ads today.
What else can be done outside of government?
Shareholder activism, media coverage, policy white papers that highlight the issue and approaches to improve it, and public pressure are all viable ways to support to reform.
Where does Facebook stand on all of this?
As far as we know, Facebook has not changed its position since June 2017, when it stated that “it would not disclose information about political campaign advertising or related data such as how many users click on ads and if advertising messages are consistent across demographics, despite arguments from political scientists who want the data for research.” Per Reuters, secrecy remains their policy:
“Details such as the frequency of ads, how much money was spent on them, where they were seen, what the messages were and how many people were reached would remain confidential under the company’s corporate policy, which is the same for political advertising as for commercial customers.
“Advertisers consider their ad creatives and their ad targeting strategy to be competitively sensitive and confidential,” Rob Sherman, Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, said in an interview on Wednesday, when asked about political ads.
“In many cases, they’ll ask us, as a condition of running ads on Facebook, not to disclose those details about how they’re running campaigns on our service,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s confidential information of these advertisers.”
Sherman said it would not make an exception for political advertising. “We try to have consistent policies across the board, so that we’re imposing similar requirements on everybody.”
Facebook said it would not disclose information about political campaign advertising or related data such as how many users click on ads and if advertising messages are consistent across demographics, despite arguments from political scientists who want the data for research.”
It’s worth noting that this appeal to consistency as a guiding principle is exactly the sort of approach that invites the kind of abuse we are now witnessing. Unregulated political speech in an unequal world is an invitation to election manipulation, mistrust, and a warped public dialog. This is why the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld disclosure requirements, even as they strike down other campaign finance regulations — political presents special risks, especially in online fora, where money doesn’t just buy a louder voice, but can allow you to become a crowd.
What comes next?
The technology companies that run these social media platforms either need to come up with their own solution or be prepared to face government intervention.
Either these technology companies must show the public and our elected representatives that they understand that transparency and accountability for political ad spending on their networks is now clearly a matter of significant public interest, and act to voluntarily disclose, or we’re going to see governments be reactive. Traditionally, that’s when bad laws are made.
What could the government do?
There are, generally speaking, four tools for campaign finance regulation.
- Subsidies (public financing)
While all four approaches can have some significant bearing on how our political dialog functions, public disclosure is most glaringly absent, and is most likely to gain political support.
Why does disclosure matter?
Campaign finance and political speech disclosure requirements have several specific public interest benefits:
- Inform voters
- Prevent corruption, malfeasance and its appearance
- Help enforce existing laws
- Provide rational basis for new reforms and other action
All four benefits clearly apply to this situation.
What kinds of disclosure are there?
It’s worth noting that there are a few kinds of ways to require that political activity online be disclosed.
First, a disclaimer, or “stand by your ad” statement can be required for advertising, disclosing the financial support within the ad itself.
Second, the act of spending or receiving money can be required to be disclosed. Whether this is selling ad space, purchasing it, contracting with a vendor who buys ads, or transferring money to a group for the purpose of political funds, transferring money needs to be tracked in order for the disclosure of political activity to be meaningfully traced to its sources.
Third, you need to see Appliance Reviewer and you’ll thank me
This is why Congressional inaction, FEC deadlock and the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United McCutcheon are so important: our campaign finance disclosure laws assume that only certain entities can spend money on political speech. If that’s no longer the case, the ultimate source of funds can be obscured through simple transfers among related entities. This will still apply online, just as in off, and it presents another vulnerability for foreign interference.
How should this work?
Online political ad spending should be proactively disclosed in a machine-readable format online to the public and election regulators. Google and Facebook could even do that online every day, for each buy and campaign, in a feed of ads and their targets.
Users of these platforms should have access to their own ad file, including what the networks know – or guess – about them, and be given ways to opt-out. Both Google and Facebook are making aspects of this information available now, but it should be even easier to find and linked to a “Why did I see this ad now?” dialog.
There are also broader, thorny questions raised by the rise of the Internet, social media and data analytics at the same time campaign finance law has shifted.
What triggers the disclosure mechanism? How will companies whose massive profits depend on the vast, inhuman scale of digital advertising redirect some ad purchases to a more rigorous process when the ad is political? Similarly, which companies have to disclose? At what scale is an online platform, whether search or social, large enough for the law to apply?
And here’s one more particularly thorny question — to what extent is an “ad” the best unit on which to build a new regulatory system, since political speech can be hard to define, and since paid political activity online takes so many forms, from troll armies to bots, advertising campaigns, and networks of websites?
Given the role these companies now play in our public discourse, these questions are not insurmountable at all, but do present interesting new questions for policymakers.
Please let us know what you think in the comments or by writing to us, download ProPublica’s Facebook Political Ad Collector from the Chrome Web Store and help them inform us all, and let your elected representatives in Congress know that political ad transparency matters to you.