One of Facebook’s major efforts to add transparency to political advertisements is a required “Paid for by” disclosure at the top of each ad supposedly telling users who is paying for political ads that show up in their news feeds.
But on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, a VICE News investigation found the “Paid for by” feature is easily manipulated and appears to allow anyone to lie about who is paying for a political ad, or to pose as someone paying for the ad.
To test it, VICE News applied to buy fake ads on behalf of all 100 sitting U.S. senators, including ads “Paid for by” by Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Facebook’s approvals were bipartisan: All 100 sailed through the system, indicating that just about anyone can buy an ad identified as “Paid for by” by a major U.S. politician.
What’s more, all of these approvals were granted to be shared from pages for fake political groups such as “Cookies for Political Transparency” and “Ninja Turtles PAC.” VICE News did not buy any Facebook ads as part of the test; rather, we received approval to include "Paid for by" disclosures for potential ads.
Read: Facebook's "Paid for by" ad tool allowed us to buy ads for "Mike Pence" and "ISIS"
This comes after a VICE News test conducted last week, where we received approval to run political ads posing as Vice President Mike Pence, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, and the Islamic State group. An attempt to place an ad posing as Hillary Clinton was denied. At the time, Facebook said those ad disclosures should not have been approved.
But these tests show that compliance with the feature is entirely voluntary, meaning a tool that Facebook introduced to increase trust in advertising can also be used as a vector for misinformation, and another way bad actors can game Facebook’s platform.
“If Facebook is going to claim to verify who’s paying for political ads, they need to actually do the work”
“If Facebook is going to claim to verify who’s paying for political ads, they need to actually do the work,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, in a statement to VICE News. “Clearly it needs to do far more to combat fraudulent and false content, both in paid advertisements and viral posts.”
Facebook confirmed that the 100 "Paid for by" disclosures in the names of U.S. senators should never have been approved. But the company argues that its "Paid for by" feature has brought a new level of transparency to political advertising, and cautioned it's just one piece of its efforts, along with a searchable Ad Archive.
"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," said Facebook Director of Product Management Rob Leathern in a statement.
Facebook rolled out the “Paid for by” tool in May “to help prevent abuse, especially during elections.” Leathern underscored its importance. “This will help ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad,” he wrote at the time. “Which is especially important when the Page name doesn’t match the name of the company or person funding the ad.”
His colleague echoed that a few days ago. “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,” Facebook Vice President of Ads Rob Goldman wrote on Oct. 27.
In announcing new transparency efforts or tools to combat foreign influence, Facebook included a caveat. “These changes will not prevent abuse entirely. We’re up against smart, creative and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse,” Leathern wrote. But we believe that they will help prevent future interference in elections on Facebook. And it is why they are so important.”
But posing as 100 senators didn’t require being smart, creative, or even particularly well-funded. Receiving approval to run an ad “paid for” by a senator typically just took a few minutes. We used 10 fake Facebook pages with no content, and changed the “paid for” disclosure after each senator was approved.
Read: No one is tracking illegal political ads in your Facebook feed
In order to run a “Paid for by” disclosure on Facebook, you must first submit the name to the company for approval, along with an image of a valid driver’s license and the last four digits of your Social Security number.
Facebook has embarked on an aggressive advertising campaign to show off its new political transparency tools, including “Paid for by” disclosures.
“As long as I can remember, every radio ad, every TV ad that touched politics always ended with a disclaimer. ‘Paid for by, brought to you by,’’ Sarah Clark Schiff, product manager, Business Integrity said in a video released last week. “And there was never anything that was systematic that delivered the same kind of visibility into who paid for paid political content on Facebook, until today.”
There was one “Paid for” disclosure that Facebook didn’t approve in our latest test. They denied, just a couple minutes after we submitted it: Mark Zuckerberg.
Cover: Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers a speech at the VivaTech show in Paris, on May 24, 2018. (Sipa via AP Images)