Facebook said Friday it will require transparency for more kinds of political advertisements — the latest in a string of concessions from the social network as CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to face Congress next week.
The company announced it will require the buyers of so-called issue ads — which focus on topics like gun control, immigration or race relations but don’t endorse a specific candidate — to confirm their location and identity, and make them display a label and disclaimer about who paid for them, just as Facebook plans to do with election-related ads.
Facebook has faced intense criticism for allowing the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency to flood its platform with ads that advertised fake events, stoked anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment and exploited the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to deepen American social and political divisions during the 2016 campaign. Some of those ad campaigns were highlighted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals for conducting illegal “information warfare” to disrupt the election.
“These steps by themselves won’t stop all people trying to game the system,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post. “But they will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads.”
The new initiative is part of a flurry of announcements and media appearances ahead of Zuckerberg’s double-header testimony in Congress next week to answer questions about the Cambridge Analytica controversy and Russian election interference. He’ll go before a joint Senate Judiciary and Commerce hearing Tuesday and face House Energy & Commerce lawmakers Wednesday, in what’s shaping up to be a critical test for the 33-year-old, hoodie-wearing CEO.
Facebook has sought to get ahead of lawmakers by unfurling a series of new tools and policies aimed at bolstering user privacy. The company plans to simplify how it displays privacy settings and make users aware of third-party applications collecting their data. It also pledged to eliminate an advertising program that relied on data from outside brokers.
As part of Friday’s announcement, Facebook said issue ads will be included in a searchable archive that the company plans to roll out this summer. The social network also said it would require people who manage pages with large followings on Facebook to be verified. The Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency has been tied to Facebook pages that amassed thousands of followers during the 2016 campaign.
Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg have touted the growing list of commitments in a litany of press interviews over the last two weeks. Sandberg has been on a TV and radio blitz in recent days, appearing on everything from Fox News to “PBS NewsHour.”
Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny since the election amid reports that Russia manipulated the social network to boost Donald Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton. The Cambridge Analytica scandal — in which the Trump-linked data firm is accused of improperly obtaining information on 87 million Facebook users via a U.K.-based professor — has deepened the social network’s problems and sparked questions about Zuckerberg’s leadership.
In announcing its new initiative Friday, Facebook also threw its support behind the Honest Ads Act, a bill from Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) that would force internet companies to carry the same disclosures for political advertising that are required for television and radio. The proposed legislation encompasses both candidate ads and issue ads.
Zuckerberg first made reference to the bill when he said he was open to regulation during a round of media interviews last week, but Facebook until now hadn’t officially endorsed the measure.
It’s a big change in outlook for the social network, which in 2011 sought a blanket exemption on political ad disclosures from the Federal Election Commission, arguing that much like campaign pins or pens, its ads were too small to comfortably hold details on who paid for them.
The Honest Ads Act has 18 co-sponsors in the Senate, but counts only one Republican supporter in that chamber: John McCain of Arizona. It’s one of the few concrete legislative proposals to emerge from the scrutiny of Russia’s election meddling on social media, but its prospects are uncertain after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in November he’s “a little skeptical of these disclosure-type proposals.”
The measure does not address so-called organic content — or regular Facebook posts that could be used by Russia or others to meddle in elections — and it’s a far cry from the sweeping data-privacy regulations sought by some lawmakers and privacy activists.
In the House, Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced a companion bill which has 15 co-sponsors.