Facebook rolls out political ad transparency less than a month before polls

In move to curb fake news and foreign intervention, political ads will be filed in publicly accessible library showing who paid, how much they paid, and where sponsors are from

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Facebook's Sean Evins explains how transparent political ads will work, Facebook Israel, Tel Aviv, February 26, 2019. (Facebook)
Facebook's Sean Evins explains how transparent political ads will work, Facebook Israel, Tel Aviv, February 26, 2019. (Facebook)

In a move to curb fake news and foreign intervention in Israel’s upcoming elections, Facebook has announced that it will roll out its political advertisement transparency tool on Friday.

The tool will force the sponsors of ads to identify themselves publicly and is meant to ensure that all such advertisers are Israeli.

It is aimed at preventing a rerun of 2016, when the tech giant was blamed for failing to stop Russian meddling in the US presidential election.

The news — coming just under three and a half weeks before Israel goes to the polls on April 9 — was shared with party campaign managers on Wednesday and then announced by the company the following day.

They were told that they would have to undergo identity verification before publishing any ads relating to political figures, political parties and elections (including get-out-the-vote campaigns).

With that process estimated to take 48 to 72 hours, the first political Facebook ads in compliance with the new regulation will not appear until Sunday.

The ad transparency tool, already developed for the US, Brazil, India and the UK, will enable Facebook users to see who has paid for a sponsored ad.

Political ads will be filed for seven years in a publicly accessible ad library containing data on whether and when the ad was active, how much money was spent on it, and where it was commissioned from.

Political ads in Israel have in fact been carrying the names of their sponsors for several days, thanks to the intervention two weeks ago of the Central Elections Committee chairman, whose calls for Facebook to bring implementation of its transparency tool forward had gone unheeded.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, banned anonymous election ads on all online platforms starting March 1, from both within Israel and abroad, warning that they could be used to subvert the upcoming elections.

His ruling came after the Likud party blocked efforts to widen current election propaganda laws to apply to online content, and said it would refuse to sign an accord between all parties committing to clearly claim authorship of their online campaign materials.

Melcer said he had been forced to act, warning against “manipulative propaganda and attempts to implant false consciousness in the minds of voters and harm democracy.” He added that unsigned election ads made it difficult to counter foreign interference like that seen in recent elections in other countries.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv last month, Facebook chiefs said that the political ad transparency tool would also be launched in Ukraine, which is due to go to the polls on March 31, and ahead of elections to the European Parliament, set for May 23 to 26. By the end of June, the rules would be applied globally, according to the company.

Facebook’s Sean Evins. (YouTube screenshot)

Sean Evins, who leads Facebook’s Politics and Government Outreach for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told the conference that political ads constituted “any advertising talking about a candidate, political party or the election itself, or using a party slogan or logo.”

He added that any unidentified active ads slipped in by “bad actors” would be picked up by Facebook’s automated systems.

The identification rules will not apply to ads dealing with national issues other than election-related ones, he confirmed. And if a celebrity, for example, were to post an item (as opposed to pay for an ad) encouraging the public to vote for a particular candidate, the sponsored ad rules on transparency would not apply.

Evins said the company used both machine intelligence and teams totaling 30,000 people to identify and take down fake profiles.

Admitting that the company had been caught unprepared in 2016, Evins said major steps had been taken since then to maintain election integrity worldwide — to crack down on fake accounts, reduce the distribution of fake news, make ads more transparent, disrupt bad actors and help to inform government bodies and the public.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced it was partnering with an Israeli fact-checking organization to help reduce misinformation and improve the quality of news featured on its platform.

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