Facebook and Twitter unveil political ad transparency tools ahead of US midterm elections later this year

Companies have been under pressure to monitor political content after flood of Russian propaganda during 2016 election

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Thursday 24 May 2018 21:35 BST
Examples of Russian-linked Facebook pages are seen during a congressional hearing on social media and election interference
Examples of Russian-linked Facebook pages are seen during a congressional hearing on social media and election interference (REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Facebook and Twitter have unveiled tools for displaying more information on political content ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Both companies were battered by revelations that Russian-linked agents had used their platforms to sow disinformation as part of a Kremlin-backed disruption effort.

Confronted with federal legislation that would require more disclosures of online political spending, the social media giants announced they would share more information on their own.

The sites are taking similar approaches. Both said that paid political content would bear labels identifying it as such and detailing who was funding it, and they laid out plans to create online databases that would act as clearinghouses for information on political content.

And in an effort to combat the type of foreign interference that roiled the 2016 presidential election, both sites said they would work to verify that political players using their sites are located in America.

Facebook said that ad-buyers would need to verify their identities and locations. Advertisers who want to purchase political content on Twitter must certify that they are based in the United States, which the site plans to confirm by sending mail to their registered addresses.

“In addition, we will not allow foreign nationals to target political ads to people who are identified as being in the US”, Twitter said in a blog post.

In a blog post explaining the change, Facebook said it had weighed banning political advertising altogether but concluded that prohibiting the content - which is relatively cheap, compared to other forms of political appeals - would disadvantage candidates who lag in fundraising.

“Banning political ads on Facebook would tilt the scales in favor of incumbent politicians and candidates with deep pockets”, the post said. “Digital advertising is typically more affordable than TV or print ads, giving less well-funded candidates a relatively economical way to reach their future constituents”.

During the 2016 campaign, millions of Americans were exposed to posts and tweets generated by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russia-based “troll farm” that intelligence officials describe as having been involve in information warfare. Paid advertising helped expand the reach of that effort - according to Facebook, thousands of paid posts helped push IRA content in front of some 150 million users.

Zuckerberg on countering Russian election interference efforts: 'This is an arms race'

With midterm elections months away, intelligence officials have warned that Russian operatives plan to again target American democracy.

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