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Facebook to require buyers of political ads to provide more information about who paid for them

Starting in September, Facebook will require buyers of what are known as issue ads or advocates of a political candidate to include information about who is funding the ads. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Facebook on Wednesday announced it would tighten some of its rules around political advertising ahead of the 2020 presidential election, requiring those who purchase ads touting candidates or promoting hot-button issues to provide more information about who actually paid for them.

The changes seek to address a number of well-documented incidents in which users placed misleading or inaccurate disclaimers on ads, effectively undermining a system for election transparency that the tech giant built after Russian agents spread disinformation on the site during the 2016 race.

Facebook already requires that political advertisers verify their identities. Starting in September, the company will require buyers of what are known as issue ads or advocates of a political candidate to include information about who is funding the ads. To satisfy Facebook’s new requirements, a business can submit its tax-identification number, or campaigns can share their own registration data from the Federal Election Commission, and Facebook will label them as a “confirmed organization” in its archive.

But Facebook won’t require advocacy organizations to submit more detailed information about their donors, meaning that Facebook users who want to learn more about an unfamiliar-sounding group must rely on the government, which has not updated its campaign-finance laws in decades.

Katie Harbath, a public policy director at Facebook, said it would be difficult for the company to verify this information because it does not “have any power under penalty of law to do that.” She said Facebook as a result is “pushing” for more government “regulation in this space.”

“We're trying to do as much as Facebook can do,” she said in an interview.

Facebook also said it was changing its policy toward ads about hot-button issues such as immigration, gun control and climate change. The company’s requirements around these ads had been unclear, Harbath said, resulting in nonpolitical issues such as recycling to be swept up in Facebook’s database.

Facebook said it would more aggressively monitor for and remove ads that seek to suppress voting. Although Facebook took action against such content during last year’s midterm elections, Harbath said the company until now had not had an explicit policy against ads encouraging people not to vote.

Facebook’s efforts to provide more transparency around political ads have drawn mixed reception since the company introduced its ad archive about two years ago.

On one hand, the tech giant’s efforts have addressed some of the issues raised by Congress, after discovering that Russian agents purchased political ads to stoke social and political unrest during the 2016 election. Lawmakers at the time threatened regulation, arguing that sites such as Facebook should be required to adhere to the same political transparency rules that long have applied to campaign-season ads on broadcast television. Policymakers never managed to pass such a law, but their warnings prompted other companies, including Google and Twitter, to unveil their own versions of the ad archive.

The stakes are even higher for the tech industry entering the 2020 presidential election: Regulators are looking to see whether they have hardened their digital defenses against Russia and other online malefactors ahead of a race that could generate nearly $6 billion in online political ad spending, according to one estimate from eMarketer. Facebook’s tools, which since have been put to the test in elections worldwide, continue to attract criticism for being incomplete or riddled with bugs.

Mozilla researchers studying the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, for example, encountered numerous technical troubles when trying to analyze Facebook’s archive. Earlier this year, a report by the media outlet Vice illustrated how journalists were able to create and upload political ads that appeared to be “paid for by” Vice President Pence and the Islamic State, even though they had not been. Facebook later removed those ads.

“We know we still have a lot of work to do, and we’re working with researchers to understand the uses we have,” Harbath said in response to the criticism.