Shadowy online ads are a staple of American elections in the digital age. In the last election cycle, voters targeted with digital ads had no way to see who purchased the ad unless they clicked through, and even then, there was sometimes no disclosure. There was no way to learn why you were being targeted or how much money was being spent on your demographic segment. (FEC disclosure requirements for online advertisements are pretty basic. Most of the time you can see only how much was spent -- and not who was targeted, for example -- on a digital buy that might include multiple platforms.) And that lack of transparency is particularly problematic given that thousands of ads on Facebook and Twitter came from Russian trolls and other hostile actors who were targeting American voters, a practice voters were unaware of until nearly a year after the elections.
In 2016, Facebook’s terms of service did not explicitly prevent foreigners, including Russians, from purchasing political ads on digital platforms. Its ad policy simply stated, “Advertisers are responsible for understanding and complying with all applicable laws and regulations.” But it’s not even clear if it’s against the law for foreign trolls to purchase ads targeting American voters. And it’s highly unlikely that the law will change before the midterm elections, even though lawmakers have introduced The Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill to provide more transparency in digital political ads, and it has the support of several government reform organizations and both Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook and Google have rolled out changes in their ad policies that could start to tame the Wild West atmosphere. Anyone who wants to run election ads will have to verify their identity before they can make the buy. Both platforms have promised to let users examine all political ads as well as their targeted demographics. Additionally, Facebook will indicate when an advertisement is explicitly political.
Verifying the identity of ad buyers and giving users more information about the ads they’re seeing is a good start, and it puts both Facebook and Google ahead of what the law currently requires. But it’s not enough to stop hostile actors from buying ads. Facebook has also rolled out a policy specific to issue ads -- which requires authorization and labeling, according to Axios -- and Google has indicated it is looking into developing something similar. Facebook’s initial list of topics that would qualify an ad as “issue” is interesting, especially the last one: “Abortion, budget, civil rights, crime, economy, education, energy, environment, foreign policy, government reform, guns, health, immigration, infrastructure, military, poverty, social security, taxes, terrorism, and values.”
Most of the Russian ads from 2016 would probably fall into Facebook’s values category. Including values on the list gives Facebook the power to scrutinize ads that are more cultural than political at first glance but are in fact meant to pit Americans against one another. And if an ad is rejected, Facebook also offers an appeal process. If hostile actors intend to game Facebook by spreading propaganda in 2018, cutting off their ability to give their content an initial boost by using targeted ad buys would eliminate a tool they used effectively in 2016. Having values on the list of issue topics suggests to me that Facebook understands this reality.
This will be an ongoing battle. I have no doubt that those behind the last election interference are already hard at work looking for workarounds, and it’s likely that they’ve found at least a few already. But the tech platforms are finally taking election integrity seriously, and unlike in 2016, we now know to be on the lookout for signs of trouble. Systemic change is our best opportunity to protect the integrity of our elections, and since we’re unlikely to see any laws passed soon, ad policy changes from tech platforms are the best form of protection Americans have.