Facebook is taking new steps to prevent interference in the 2018 midterms, days before CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes the hot seat before Congress to testify on Russian interference in the 2016 election and a data leak that allowed millions of Facebook profiles to fall into the hands of the Robert Mercer-backed political targeting firm Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook announced Friday it will require every advertiser that wants to run political or “issues” ads to have a verified account, by confirming their identity and location.
Facebook will also require managers of large Facebook Pages to be verified, an attempt to prevent large accounts from spreading misinformation as Russian-linked accounts did during the 2016 presidential election.
The changes come less than a week before Zuckerberg’s expected testimony in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee, which will no doubt ask him how at least 87 million Facebook profiles were pulled out of the social network and then used by Cambridge Analytica, which later worked for the Trump campaign.
Zuckerberg is out to prove that Facebook is up to the challenge of preventing malicious actors from the network in advance of the 2018 midterms, which are already underway in many states. “With important elections coming up around the world next year, one of my top priorities for 2018 is making sure we prevent interference in these elections,” he said in a blog post.
The new tools, some already announced, will allow users to click on an ad and see who bought it, how much they’re spending, and to whom they are targeting the message. While Facebook has already announced they would do this for political ads, on Friday Zuckerberg said he would extend this to “issues” ads as well, which aren’t necessarily for a particular candidate but could be on hot-button topics like immigration, abortion, and gun control.
Most of the ads purchased by Kremlin-aligned Russians during the 2016 election fell into those categories. “Most of the paid ads the Internet Research Agency ran on Facebook prior to the 2016 election didn’t mention Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – but they did mention divisive political issues like guns, LGBT rights, immigration, and racial issues,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat.
Those types of ads present a particular challenge because there is free speech involved, but also because there's a fine line between what is considered an “issues” ad vs. other types of posts or advertisements. After Facebook came to terms with Russian interference in 2016 — a fact they initially denied — the company says it rolled out artificial intelligence tools in the 2017 German, French, and Alabama special elections to root out fake accounts.
But Zuckerberg conceded technology alone won’t be enough to root out bogus pages, dark money, and bad actors, saying part of the solution will require Facebook to “hire more people.”
In addition to requiring that managers of big Pages be verified, Facebook will create a searchable archive of all the political or “issues” ads it is running, which will allow users to see what the page is doing, even if they aren’t being targeted with those ads.
The latest moves are part of a raft of steps Facebook has taken over the past few weeks after a whistleblower and former employee at Cambridge Analytica came forward to reveal how millions of Facebook profiles were scraped and then used to help the company target people it believed would be susceptible to conspiracy theories.
Facebook has said it closed down that loophole that allowed apps makers to scrape profiles, and placed limits on the activities of third-party data firms.
Zuckerberg said the new steps announced Friday are geared to make it tougher to use the same tactics in 2018.
“These steps by themselves won't stop all people trying to game the system,” Zuckerberg said. “But they will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads.”
Cover image: A picture taken in Moscow on March 22, 2018 shows an illustration picture of the English-language version of Facebook about page featuring the face of founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (Photo: MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)