Within the past several months, before news first broke of voter profiling firm Cambridge Analytica improperly obtaining and using personal user data, Facebook said it would be making a large degree of changes as to how it handles advertisements.
Those promises came when it was first revealed in 2017 that the social media behemoth had been weaponized by foreign actors to spread misinformation and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Since then, Facebook has made incremental changes to the way it ranks and provides context around content appearing in users’ News Feeds.
In January, that was a shift in the algorithm to focus more on content from friends and family. But then, the Cambridge Analytica story broke — and since then, Facebook has swiftly instituted sweeping changes to its data, content, and privacy policies. The latest of those changes came today, when it announced that more changes would be made to the transparency of all ads on its site, and not just political ones.
Here’s what Facebook says that’ll look like.
Issue-Based Ads Will Require the Same Verification as Electoral Ones
Last October, before the Cambridge Analytica news broke, Facebook said it would only allow authorized advertisers to run electoral ads on Facebook or Instagram — that is, ads for candidates, for example. Today, wrote VP of Ads Rob Goldman and VP of Local & Pages Alex Himel, the same will be required of any parties who wish to publish ads related to the issues that often come up during election season.
That’s important, because it was that type of ad that allegedly played a role in the aforementioned efforts to share divisive content on Facebook (and other social networks) that could have ultimately influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. And to help combat that, Facebook says, the company is partnering with “third” parties to comprehensively determine what those issues are — an ongoing effort that the announcement says will be fine-tuned as the efforts proceed.
This authorization will work similarly to the verification efforts Facebook identified in recent weeks when Product Management Director Rob Leathern spoke to a new ad review and verification process that will require all Page admins to submit government-issued IDs and provide a physical mailing address before they can publish any promoted content.
Now, any advertisers will have to verify their identities and locations in the same way and won’t be able to run any political ads until that process is complete.
To further those efforts, these ads will all contain a “Political Ad” label, including information about who paid for it. According to this announcement, this verification process has already been tested this week, and users can expect to see these labels later on in the spring.
Machine learning will also play a role here, to help Facebook identify existing advertisers that should have been put through this verification process, but weren’t, for whatever reason — and users can weigh in by tapping the three dots at the top right corner of the ad and selecting “Report Ad.”
“This is the clearest approach to labeling political ads that they’ve put forth thus far,” says Henry Franco, HubSpot’s social campaign strategy associate.
Searchable and Archived Ads
Here’s another feature that Facebook alluded to last week when it held an overview of upcoming efforts to protect election security: View Ads, which has been tested in Canada and will be rolled out globally this summer. As the name suggests, it allows users to view any ads the Page is running under its “About” section.
That functionality will be available to all Facebook users, even if they don’t follow a given advertiser Page, and will roll out on a global scale in June — the same month when Facebook says it will also launch its public, searchable archive of political ads.
That archive will store the full text and imagery of any and all ads with the aforementioned “Political Ad” label, as well as the number of impressions it received and demographic information about the audience it reached. And according to previous statements from Facebook, the archive will keep this information for up to four years after the ad runs.
Here’s what this archive could look like:
No Pages Left Behind (for Verification)
Finally, Facebook said that any Page with a “large” following — what precise amount that entails is unclear — is subject to verification, regardless of its categories. And until the administrators of these Pages complete that process, they will not be permitted to post anything from it.
While that could carry some implications for any marketers or advertisers with a large following — if for no other reason, than elongating the process of being able to publish content — Facebook also says that this change will make it much more difficult for fake accounts to thrive. For reference, these “fake” accounts already violate Facebook’s policies.
“It might be a bit of a headache to verify your page,” says Franco, “but it will also increase the legitimacy of your postings, and make the Facebook community a safer, more transparent place.”
These Pages will also come with additional context, like any historical name changes it’s gone through — which bears a resemblance to recent efforts announced by Facebook to display more details alongside any stories appearing in the News Feed.
That’s slated to include such information as any “official” Wikipedia entry on the publisher of the story, in addition to related articles on the same topic. It will also display where and how many times that story (from that publisher) has been shared on Facebook, as well as a “More From This Publisher” feature, allowing users to see what other stories the publisher has recently posted.
With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make two appearances before Congress next week — a joint hearing with the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees on Tuesday, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday — it would appear that the recent onslaught of changes announced by Facebook is at least in part the result of preparation for this testimony before lawmakers.
Earlier today, Zuckerberg published a post on this latest round of changes on his official Facebook Page:
Facebook has also been releasing announcements on its accomplishments in this space, perhaps to build a repertoire of successes and progress to bring to Congress for next week’s hearings. This week alone, that includes significant plans to restrict data access, as well as the removal of 70 Facebook accounts, 65 Instagram accounts, and 138 Facebook Pages that were controlled by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA).
It appears that these could be efforts to leave as little room as possible for doubt or interpretation among lawmakers.
We’ll be on the ground in Washington, DC to report on these hearings next week. Questions? Feel free to reach out on Twitter.