Facebook rolls out European election political ad transparency tools

Political campaigners and candidates running Facebook ads about the upcoming European elections will need to undergo strict checks for the first time as part of the social network’s efforts to combat foreign interference.

Facebook will ask anyone running ads relating to the European Parliament elections in May to provide documentary evidence of their identity and location. They will need to be “authorised in their country” to run ads about the election.

Facebook said it would check advertisers’ information through a combination of automated tech and reports from users, but didn’t go into further detail about how this would reliably work in practice.

Read more: Facebook plans to tackle anti-vaccine misinformation by rejecting false ads and de-ranking harmful pages

The new system includes ads relating to hot-button campaign issues such as immigration, not just those about political parties and candidates.

Facebook will archive all ads relating to the elections and campaign issues in a dedicated, searchable library which will display information about the advertiser, their location, and how much they paid for the ad.

Facebook will store all EU election ads in a searchable library.
Facebook

Facebook originally announced the European ad tools in January, and said on Thursday that it plans to roll the system out in April. The elections are due to take place on different dates through the EU toward the end of May.

EU officials criticised Facebook in January for not rolling out systems to tackle disinformation fast enough, but later praised the firm for making the tools operational before the election.

Experts have warned that this could be Europe’s most hackable election to date. Official data shows that turnout for the European Parliament elections has been falling since 1979, leaving the vote more vulnerable to foreign interference.

Politico reported remarks made in February by former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who warned that Russia, China, and Iran could all meddle in the upcoming election.

“It’s not an ideological war from Russia, it’s not a left-wing or right-wing oriented campaign, but the campaign aims at undermining trust and confidence and initiates chaos and instability,” he said at the time.

European Council chief Donald Tusk later warned in May of foreign interference, though he didn’t specifically name Russia.

“There are external anti-European forces which are seeking — openly or secretly — to influence the democratic choices of the Europeans, as was the case with Brexit and a number of election campaigns across Europe,” he said.

Facebook has already launched similar efforts to make political ads more transparent in the UK, Brazil, the US, India, and Ukraine.

Facebook has tweaked its ‘paid for by’ disclosure on ads to make it harder for people to run fake ads

When Facebook’s political ad transparency tools first rolled out, journalists found the system wasn’t entirely foolproof.

When the tools first rolled out in the US, Vice posed as 100 senators paying for ads on Facebook, and was approved by the social network.

When the tool was due to expand to the UK, Business Insider posed as disgraced political consultancy Cambridge Analytica— which is banned from Facebook — and successfully ran ads relating to Brexit.

And Conservative politician Damian Collins has demanded that Facebook identify who is behind “Mainstream Network”, an anonymous group running ads about Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

To try and prevent people posting ads under fake or anonymous identities, Facebook has tweaked its “paid for by” disclosure on political ads.

Previously, it was comparatively easy for someone to set up a Page on Facebook, run a political ad, and then say it was “paid for by” a completely separate organisation. Last year, Business Insider set up a Page for a made-up organisation called “Insider Research Group”, used it to run Brexit-oriented ads, and then said these were paid for by Cambridge Analytica.

Business Insider’s fake Cambridge Analytica ad, which slipped past Facebook’s ad approval filters.
Shona Ghosh/Business Insider

Now, Facebook will either display an individual’s name in the “paid for by” tag, as confirmed by official documents, or a Page name that is backed up by a website, phone number, and email address.

It won’t necessarily completely prevent meddling, but the new system does pose extra barriers to anyone trying to run fake ads.

Richard Allen, Facebook’s European policy chief, wrote in a post announcing the changes: “We recognise that some people can try and work around any system but we are confident this will be a real barrier for anyone thinking of using our ads to interfere in an election from outside of a country.”

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