The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I worked on political ads at Facebook. They profit by manipulating us.

The company can’t avoid damaging democracy.

Facebook chairman and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing last month. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

I joined Facebook in June 2018 as “head of Global Elections Integrity Ops” in the company’s business integrity organization, focused specifically on political advertising. I had spent much of my career working to strengthen and defend democracy — including freedom of speech — as an intelligence officer, diplomat and White House adviser. Now I had the opportunity to help correct the course of a company that I viewed as playing a major role in one of the biggest threats to our democracy.

In the year leading up to our 2016 election, I began to see the polarization and breakdown of civil discourse, exacerbated by social media, as our biggest national security threat; I had written about that before Facebook called. I didn’t think I was going to change the company by myself. But I wanted to help Facebook think through the role it plays in politics, in the United States and around the world, and the best way to ensure that it is not harming democracy.

A year and a half later, as the company continues to struggle with how to handle political content and as another presidential election approaches, it’s clear that tinkering around the margins of advertising policies won’t fix the most serious issues. The real problem is that Facebook profits partly by amplifying lies and selling dangerous targeting tools that allow political operatives to engage in a new level of information warfare. Its business model exploits our data to let advertisers aim at us, showing each of us a different version of the truth and manipulating us with hyper-customized ads — ads that as of this fall can contain blatantly false and debunked information if they’re run by a political campaign. As long as Facebook prioritizes profit over healthy discourse, it can’t avoid damaging democracy.

* * *

Early in my time there, I dug into the question of misinformation in political advertising. Posting in a “tribe” (Facebook’s internal collaboration platform), I asked our teams working on political advertising whether we should incorporate the same tools for political ads that other integrity teams at Facebook were developing to address misinformation in pages and organic posts. It was unclear to me why the company was applying different policies and tools across the platform. Most users do not differentiate organic content from ads — as I clearly saw on a trip to India, where we were testing our ad-integrity products — so why did we expect users to understand that we applied different standards to different forms of content that all appear in their news feeds?

The real problem with Facebook is not a data leak

The fact that we were taking money for political ads, and allowing campaigns and other political organizations to target users based on the vast amounts of data we had gathered, meant political ads should have an even higher bar for integrity than what people were posting in organic content. We verified advertisers to run political ads, giving them a check mark and a “paid for by” label, and I asked if that gave the false impression that we were vouching for the validity of the content, boosting its perceived credibility even though we weren’t checking any facts or trying to halt the spread of false information.

Most of my colleagues agreed. People wanted to get this right. But above me, there was no appetite for my pushing, and I was accused of “creating confusion.” Leaders in the business integrity organization rejected some of the solutions my team was building to try to address highly consequential problems, particularly if the solutions were not “scalable.” Every election has a different set of challenges and local realities, so scalability is antithetical to truly solving the issues affecting individual elections around the world.

Ultimately, I was not empowered to do the job I was hired to do, and I left within six months. I don’t know if anybody up the chain ever considered our proposals to combat misinformation in political ads. But based on the company’s current policy allowing politicians to lie in ads, and the dissent letter signed in late October by more than 250 Facebook employees disagreeing with the policy, it seems clear that they did not.

If fake news wasn’t on Facebook, people would find it somewhere else

As we now know, paid advertising was just a small fraction of the Russian activities ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and social media affects civil discourse and warps democracy in many other ways. But how Facebook decides to handle the current controversy is the biggest test of whether it will ever truly put society and democracy ahead of profit and ideology. The dissent letter referred multiple times to all the hard work the “product teams have made in integrity over the last two years” and said they “don’t want to see that undermined by policy.” This is a very real tension at Facebook: I repeatedly saw passionate and thoughtful work in my own group not make it past the few voices who ultimately decided the company’s overall direction.

During my interviews, I was asked whether I thought the company should ban political ads, and at the time, the answer was obvious to me. I said that although it seemed like the easiest solution, banning political advertising on the world’s largest social media platform would tilt the scales toward incumbents who already had disproportionate access to media, especially in countries with dictatorial regimes; Facebook would risk squashing the voices of smaller parties and candidates. This is the one point on which I agreed with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s defense of political advertising in his speech last month.

Micro-targeted data intended for advertising on social media is being used to to change power structures globally, says Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. (Video: The Washington Post)

But couching the issue as simply a question of free speech is both disingenuous and an intentional distraction. Many of the fixes found in the company’s new ad transparency rules are laudable and necessary, but the core issue will not be solved before 2020 without addressing the fundamental, systemic problem the business model causes.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in a Bloomberg News interview on Oct. 30 that the company is leading on transparency in political advertising and providing all the relevant information in the “ad library.” But true transparency would include information about the tools that differentiate advertising on Facebook from traditional print and television spots, and in fact make it more dangerous: Can I see if a political advertiser used the custom audience tool, and if so, if my email address was uploaded? Can I see what “look-alike audience” advertisers, who are trying to find other users with similar data as their original targets, are seeking? Can I see a true, verified name of the advertiser in the disclaimer about who paid for the ad? Can I see if and how Facebook’s algorithms amplified the ad? If not, the claim that Facebook is providing a level playing field for free expression is a myth.

Free political speech is core to our democratic principles, and it’s true that social media companies should not be the arbiters of truth. But the only way Facebook can prevent abuse of its platform to harm our electoral process is to end its most egregious targeting and amplification practices and provide real transparency.

Banning political ads would unleash larger problems, such as determining what is an “issue ad” and stifling the ability of advocates on issues such as climate change to advertise. But allowing candidates to spread disinformation using sophisticated targeting tools that exploit our data cannot be the only other option.

Facebook seems to think it is: Now the company says it will let politicians lie in ads in the upcoming British elections, too. It’s clear that the company won’t make the necessary fixes without being forced to, either by advertisers that refuse to spend money on Facebook’s platforms until it cleans up the spread of misinformation and other harmful content; employees who continue to demand accountability and responsibility from their leaders; and, most immediately, the government.

The “culture of fear,” nasty political campaigns and extreme rhetoric are not new in American society. But the extent to which social media platforms have fueled and exacerbated these factors — by using our emotional biases to keep our eyeballs on their screens, to vacuum up our data and sell their targeting tools to advertisers — has tilted the playing field toward the most salacious and fanatical voices.

Whether politicians should run fake ads, who should decide whether claims are true and who should govern the Internet are important questions that society will continue to debate. But those are different matters than whether companies should profit from providing politicians with potent information-warfare tools to blast us with disinformation. The answer there is clear: We can’t afford to let them anymore.

Read more:

Facebook could easily make privacy the default. It still hasn’t.

Facebook users aren’t the reason Facebook is in trouble now

Russia’s Facebook ads show how microtargeting can be weaponized