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Facebook facing pressure to make political advertisements more transparent

by on 19th February 2018

Facebook and other social networks have faced an onslaught of negative publicity in recent months surrounding their influence around key elections and referendums in North America and Europe.

Both YouTube and Twitter recently appeared before the UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee to provide evidence on Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.

While the evidence presented showed “very low levels of engagement” according to Twitter’s UK Head of Public Policy Nick Pickles, Facebook has faced similar criticism in the last few months in relation to political advertising and “fake news.”

The criticism stems from data publicized by Facebook through an official release on their website on 2nd October 2017, in which it outlined the nature of Russian advertisements presented to U.S. Congress.

The release states that 10 million U.S. users viewed the ads. It also states 44 percent of the impressions were before the US election in 2016 and 25 percent of the ads were never seen by users.

According to Facebook, 50 percent of the ads cost less than $3 and 99 percent of the ads cost less than $1,000. The advertisements were delivered between 2015 and 2017 (Facebook has now banned the accounts).

Facebook also released data on organic social activity (free activity constituting posts on Facebook pages). Colin Stretch, a lawyer for Facebook, said “Our best estimate is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of their stories at some point during the two-year period. This equals about four-thousandths of 1% (0.004%) of content in news feed, or approximately one out of 23,000 pieces of content.”

To put these numbers in context, Facebook now has 2.13 billion users worldwide and generated $12.97 billion in revenue in the final quarter of 2017 (the vast majority of this was through advertisements).

It’s also important to note that 54% of online advertisements are reportedly viewed by bots (automatic traffic) and that Facebook has one third more U.S. users than people who live in the U.S.

The latest development is a proposal written by Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat and vice chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which suggests that online advertisements should be subject to the same standards for transparency as television, print and radio advertisements.

The FEC will consider the proposed framework at its next hearing on the 8th March.

In a move which perhaps speaks to the validity of endless proclamations about Artificial Intelligence, Facebook has also announced it will rely on sending postcards to verify the location and identity of political advertisers.

According to Facebook’s Global Director of Policy Programs, Katie Harbath, and in a statement provided to Reuters, the restriction will only apply to adverts which mention a particular candidate; in other words, they won’t apply to “issue-based” campaigns.

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