WHO PAID for ads on Facebook smearing Jennifer T. Wexton, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 10th District, as an “evil socialist”? According to Facebook, the answer is “a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd Amendment.”
These anonymous attack ads against Ms. Wexton, whom The Post has endorsed, were first reported by the New York Times. Some of the postings, which Facebook has now removed, were relatively innocuous: a photo of an empty wallet, accompanied by the name “Wexton” transformed to “Taxton,” for example. Others were outrageous: Ms. Wexton juxtaposed with Christine Blasey Ford and the caption “WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?? NOTHING!!! BOTH ARE LIARS,” or Ms. Wexton’s face superimposed on a swastika background. For all of them, the platform knew who was really behind the content. The public did not. That’s a problem.
The “Wacky Wexton Not” page these postings appeared on, which has since been renamed “Defeat Wexton,” is relatively small. That means the reach of its ads is relatively limited. But they exposed a hole in the woodwork of Facebook’s disclaimer policies that needs patching: Facebook’s rules allow authorized buyers to insert whatever text they please into the “Paid for by” field of an ad.
Facebook’s disclaimer guidelines mandate that political advertisers accurately identify themselves, even when they are not engaging in “express advocacy” — explicitly telling citizens to vote for one candidate or reject another. That’s more than federal regulation requires, and Facebook’s archive of all the ads on its site is also helpful. But the structure of the disclaimer feature means the stricture is easy to dodge. Facebook should fact-check disclaimers submitted by buyers, with human help, to ensure they are accurate and sufficient before the ads they are attached to appear on the site.
Authorities also should issue clear and comprehensive regulations on digital ad disclosure so that it is no longer up to Facebook and its peers to decide just how much advertisers have to reveal. The Federal Election Commission is considering rules on small digital ads of the “Wacky Wexton” variety, but there has been little movement since March. Congress’s Honest Ads Act would also strengthen disclaimer requirements. The two bodies together must craft a regime that tells sites how to treat ads of all sizes and types.
The absence of comprehensive government rules on online advertising disclosure leaves it up to companies such as Facebook to take on the task. They are doing so, to a point, but platforms’ professed concerns about stepping on buyers’ privacy rights are getting in the way of true transparency. The companies should do better until the feds put their foot down — which ought to happen soon.