Political Advertising & Facebook

Or… how to add a little bit more accountability to political advertising on social networks.

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

TL;DR

Whether you like it or not, Facebook’s stance on the truth in Political Advertising is correct, and this is backed by both the FTC and Supreme Court cases.

However, due to the reach of social networks, the prevalence of targeting of specific sub-sets of people, and the distinct lack of accountability — to keep advertisers accountable — a historical, open-to-all, record on every political advertisement that has been run and, and most importantly what demographics were targeted, must be kept to truly inform people on what is appropriate and to let the people decide (after all, it is a democracy).

Background

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) asked questions of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (MZ) whilst testifying before the House Financial Services Committee on his company’s plan to create a cryptocurrency called Libra and its possible impact on the financial services industry and the housing sector. (see the C-Span video from the 23rd October, 2019)

This conversation veered off-topic from cryptocurrencies, into advertising practices by the social media giant, and garnered reactions from around the internet.

The initial reaction to the hearing, to Mark Zuckerberg, and the seeming inability of him to take responsibility for the advertisements confirmed a lot of people’s existing bias that Facebook, whilst a great way to ‘connect people’ was a platform that would quite happily, and knowingly, allow the spread of disinformation.

The internet was awash with backlash around how Mark Zuckerberg answered the questions, for example, some of the headlines from news outlets:

  • AOC asks Zuckerberg: How much could I lie about the GOP on Facebook? (source: NBC News)
  • “So You Won’t Take Down Lies?”: AOC Blasts Mark Zuckerberg in Testy House Hearing (source: Vanity Fair)
  • AOC Asked Mark Zuckerberg About Facebook’s Fact-Checking Process. He Didn’t Give Her the Whole Truth. (source: Mother Jones )
  • Watch: AOC gets testy with Facebook CEO while interrogating him about fact-checking (source: Fox News)
  • Watch video of AOC grilling Zuckerberg on Facebook allowing lies in political ads (source: CNBC)
  • Mark Zuckerberg Falters Under AOC’s Grilling: ‘Lying Is Bad’ (source: Crooks and Liars)
  • AOC questions Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on fact-checking political ads (source: CNBC)
  • AOC grills Zuckerberg over which lies are allowed in Facebook political ads (source: Market Watch)
  • AOC and Maxine Waters confront Mark Zuckerberg about giving politicians “license to lie” on Facebook (source: Salon)
  • The 6 questions from AOC that stumped Mark Zuckerberg (source: The Independent)

The above headlines, very much designed to have a visceral¹ impact on the reader, pointed towards a company, and its CEO, that was defending lying — that ‘lying was in fact allowed’. Most people, one would hope, would agree that lying is bad, so, from the headlines, here you have someone who is defending something which should not be defended — why such a disconnect?

However, if a bit more investigation is done from the opposite point of view, some articles also can be found (note: It is much harder to find this opinion):

  • AOC Demonstrates Her Ignorance About the First Amendment (source: Town Hall)

Alas, the article did not actually articulate how AOC demonstrates her ignorance about the First Amendment. So, instead let’s go a little deeper, and try to actually answer whether Facebook is actually doing something abhorrent.

  • Facebook: Lies in political ads are allowed, but you can choose to see fewer of them (source: mashable)

Alas, this is from a user’s perspective, not a wholistic view of lying across the platform…

  • Why Facebook can’t stop politicians from lying (source: The Verge)

Alas, this article doesn’t go into the core of what the issue is…

  • Facebook hits back at AOC on political ads, free speech (source: Fox Business)

Alas, no, Facebook does not hit back, it just issued a statement…

Looking around the internet, the overwhelming information out there is one of against Facebook, rather than for their position

The transcript of the hearings…

[AOC]: You announced recently that the official policy of Facebook now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation. In 2020 election and in the future. So I just want to know how far I can push this in the next year. Under your policy using census data as well, could I pay to target black predominantly zip codes and advertise them the incorrect election date?

[MZ]: No, congresswoman, you couldn’t. We have even for these policies around the news worthiness of content that politicians say and the general principle that I believe —

[AOC]: But you said you’re not going to fact check my ads.

[MZ]: If anyone including a politician is saying things that can cause violence or could risk eminent physical harm or voter or census suppression, we roll out the census suppression policy. We will take that content down.

[AOC]: So you will — there is some threshold you will fact-check political advertisements. Is that what you’re telling me?

[MZ]: Congresswoman, yes, for specific things like that whether where there’s imminent risk of harm.

[AOC]: Could I run ads targeting republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal?

[MZ]: Can you repeat that?

[AOC]: Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal? If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements I’m trying to understand the bounds here of what’s fair game.

[MZ]: I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head.

[AOC]: You don’t know if i’ll be able to do that. Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?

[MZ]: Congresswoman, I think lying is bad. I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie that would be bad. That’s different from it being — in our position, the right thing to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.

[AOC]: So you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies? It’s a pretty simple yes or no.

[MZ]: Congresswoman, in most cases, in a democracy I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for for themselves.

[AOC]: You won’t take them down? You may flag that it’s wrong, but you won’t take it down.

[MZ]: Congresswoman, it depends on the context that it shows up, organic post, ads

When you look at the answers to the questions, it can be summarised by AOC asking whether Facebook would fact check political ads in the following two cases:

  1. Lying about another candidate,
  2. Advertisements targeting voter suppression

And Mark Zuckerberg answering:

  1. Facebook will not fact check political lies, and
  2. Yes, voter suppression advertisements would not be allowed

The simple answer to these question lies in the legal rules around advertising, so let’s have a look at the advertising standards.

What are the rules around advertising?

Within the United States of America

The Federal Trade Commission’s direction about ‘Truth in Advertising’ states that:

When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.

Which sounds like a very good place to start, however, when it comes to political advertsing…

The Broadcast Law Blog’s piece “Questions about the Truth of Political Ads…” goes into detail about what an acceptable advertisement is for political candidates, and the history behind it. In part, it states:

The rules are actually fairly simple in concept, and for ads sponsored by candidates themselves, the rules are fairly simple for broadcasters to implement. It’s very basic — broadcasters can’t censor a candidate ad, so they can’t reject it (or remove it from the air) no matter what its content is. The FCC has made only one exception to this “no censorship” obligation.

the FCC adopted a policy that broadcasters need not run an ad that would violate a Federal criminal law (e.g. obscenity)².

Admittedly, The United States has enshrined in its Constitution the ‘Right to Free Speech’ — so important in fact, that it is the very first of the ammendments to their constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

which guarantees that the government (in this case Congress) cannot restrict the press or rights of individuals to speak freely.

So, how does that compare to other countries

Other countries do not have this right enshrined in their constitution, however there are 173 countries that are party to seven core international human rights treaties, one of which, the right to freedom of opinion and expression is contained in articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Which helps to cover this ‘right to free speech’

Australia

Currently, there is no legal requirement for the content of political advertising to be factually correct. Complainants are advised to raise their concerns with the advertiser directly and/or with their local Member of Parliament. (Politica and election advertisin Ad Standards Australia)

The United Kingdom

Advertising in the UK is regulated by an independent self-regulator, the Ad-vertising Standards Authority (ASA), and The Office of Communications (OFCOM). Different rules apply in the UK to broadcast and non-broadcast political advertisements. It is a complex environment in which to operate, and

There have been attempts to get political parties to establish a code of practice for political advertising, however no consensus could be reached.

So it seems that in a worldwide sense (or at least for the countries listed above), truth in advertising when it comes to political advertising in particular is almost a free for all.

So, back to the questions…

Question 1: Will Facebook fact check lying about another candidate

No it won’t, and nor does it need to, in fact, any outlet within the media does not have to, and Facebook should be no different.

Question 2: Will Facebook allow advertisements targeting voter suppression

No it won’t, and this is a legally quasi-grey-area, and there are many and various opinions on voter suppression. It will do its best to take them down (Alas, we all know that sometimes their best is not good enough)

In summary

If anything, Mark Zuckerberg answered the questions correctly, however, Facebook is no ordinary media operation — it’s reach is unprecedented, and the way in which it can specifically target users is almost unheard of in other media outlets.

Traditional media outlets (thinking pre-internet companies here; Television, Radio, Newspapers, magasines) have always known who their readers were, and would sell advertisements based on those demographics — Facebook has far more information on individuals and their preferences, and can therefore target groups of people far better.

Facebook says that it only sells targeted advertising, a model of online marketing that essentially optimizes ads based on a user’s interests and clicking habits. If you imagine all of a user’s clicking habits, across the majority of websites (sources quote that 85% of websites contain Facebook tracking technology), then the picture of their habits becomes a lot clearer than those anonymous people that tune in to television, or radio, or pick up a newspaper or magazine.

So where does this leave us?

Adding accountability…

Facebook already offers a ‘Page Transparency’ report for advertisements and groups, which allows users to see who is advertising, they also have an Advertising Library with which individual ads can be interrogated

From the Info and Ads tab, people will be able to view the active ads a Page is running across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Audience Network, even if they’re not in the target audience. People can click on interactive elements of the ads, but engagement, such as Likes, comments or shares will not be available. In addition, impressions, video views and clicks on ads within the Info and Ads section will not be counted and advertisers will not be charged for this ads activity.

Which sounds great, here are the problems:

  1. People aren’t going to simply check the ‘transparency’ page of an ad
  2. Even if they do, how will they be informed of the veracity of the ad, or the group that is posting it.
  3. Historical advertisements will not be shown, and you may never see that advertisement again.
  4. The advertisements do not show the segments that were targetted

When it comes to democracy, and the far reaching effects of voting and governments, more accountabilty must be added, with all political ads having this archived historically, and available for everyone to see, all of time.

This is the only way that Facebook will become accountable to what it shows, They should not be allowed to make billions of dollars from advertising, and then shrug their shoulders as to where the money came from.

Footnotes:
¹ visceral reaction: characterized by or proceeding from instinct rather than intellect.

² This came about when Larry Flint decided to run for President and wanted to run sexually explicit adds — which was subsequently banned.

All sorts of interests