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Facebook's political ad tool let us buy ads “paid for” by Mike Pence and ISIS

It also allowed us to post actual propaganda from Russia's influence campaign during the 2016 election.

by William Turton
Oct 25 2018, 4:41pm

Last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said making political advertising more transparent was one of the most important things the company would do after it was revealed Russians used the platform to attempt to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. But according to a small test run by VICE News, one of the new features Facebook rolled out this year is easily subject to manipulation.

In May, Facebook added a mandatory “Paid For” disclosure for every ad that relates to politics or what Facebook calls an “issue of national importance.” The idea is to lift the veil on the kind of inflammatory ads placed by anonymous advertisers that plagued Facebook during the 2016 race.

But when VICE News placed ads on behalf of prominent political figures such as Vice President Mike Pence, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, Facebook quickly approved them. We also tried submitting an ad on behalf of “Islamic State,” which was also approved by Facebook. We were able to get Facebook’s approval for political ads that included these names within the Paid For disclosure.

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Using “Hillary Clinton” in the Paid For disclosure was denied by Facebook, but that didn’t prevent us from continuing to place political ads under other false names and bogus PACs. Facebook didn’t explain to VICE News why Hillary Clinton was denied.

To be able to submit political ads on Facebook, we were required to submit a valid ID and proof of residence. That means Facebook knew who was behind the ads internally, but externally, Facebook users would see was completely made up Paid For information.

Read: Text campaigns are changing American politics — and nobody's ready

After placing the ads, we reached out to Facebook, which said the ads should have never been approved.

“Inaccurate disclaimers have no place on Facebook and these ads are no longer running,” said Rob Leathern, who leads Business Integrity product management team at Facebook. “Our goal is to increase transparency on Facebook and prevent foreign interference elections which is why we have implemented the authorization process and released the Ad Archive. Enforcement isn’t perfect - and we won't stop all people trying to game the system - but we have made it much harder and we will continue to improve.”

A Facebook spokesperson told VICE News the company is developing closer relationships with election authorities who could flag potentially non-compliant disclaimers.

Facebook also said that no foreign advertisers are permitted to place political ads in the U.S., but that didn’t stop VICE News from using exact copies of ads that were run by Russian agents during their 2016 disinformation campaign.

Read: Congress still isn't sure what to do about Big Tech

Facebook told VICE News that the actual content of these ads did not violate its rules, only the fabricated Paid For disclosures. We made sure the ad that said it was Paid For by Mike Pence, which was approved, actually never actually ran on Facebook.

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Facebook touted its “Paid For” feature in a glossy video released earlier this week. “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 the video. “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.”

In a further bid for transparency, Facebook revealed its top political advertisers since May. The list revealed that Facebook itself is its own top political advertiser, spending $12.5 million on image ads; Texas candidate for U.S. Senate Beto O’Rourke was second with $5.3 million, and Trump for America was third, with $3.1 million, a sign that Trump is still pouring funds into Facebook even though he’s not on the ballot in November.

Cover: Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., holds his phone after the morning session at the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Friday, July 13, 2018. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)