- 29 Mar 19
Facebook is introducing new paid ad rules ahead of the upcoming European Parliament elections in May.
The company, whose headquarters are in Dublin, says that the move is a step towards protecting the integrity of elections.
Under these new rules, all advertisers will have to be authorised in their country to run ads relating to the European elections.
Explaining the process, Facebook says it will use technical checks to confirm advertisers' identity and location.
This means that people trying to reach voters with political ads will have been verified, and therefore are easily identifiable.
The news comes almost a year after Facebook was accused of allowing unregulated ads on its site in relation to the referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment.
Now, Facebook's changes will mean that all ads relating to politics on Facebook and Instagram in the EU will also have to be labelled with a "Paid for by" disclosure.
Facebook has invited all political campaigns to register now while they plan to start blocking unregistered ads from Mid-April.
Despite this news, many have noted that it's a curious election for the introduction of these particular measures, with one senior MEP saying that it's "seriously flawed".
Europe, after all, is made up of 27 countries. And already, pan-European parties are complaining bitterly, that a co-ordinated platform is now going to be much harder to organise.
“Limiting campaigns to one country is totally the opposite of what we want in European democracy,” Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party told the Financial Times. “It is killing the idea of European democracy.”
Mr Verhofstadt acknowledged that the rules are a well-meaning attempt to protect the elections from misinformation attacks from outside the bloc. But he is not convinced either that it will stop the spread of fake advertising. “Russian trolls will find a way to set up shop in every country and spread misinformation,” he added. "Pan-EU initiatives on Facebook have to continue to be possible.”
“It is depressing that that it has taken so long for Facebook to take meaningful action,” the leader of the European Social Democrats Udo Bullman said, also in the Financial Times. “And even now they do, it is seriously flawed. It should be possible to stop shady interference from foreign countries, without cutting off genuine pan-European debate."
Even a European Parliament ad urging people to vote cannot be posted unless it is channelled through an office or an individual in each country separately. Which only underlines the extraordinary position of dominance and power which Facebook has achieved – underlining the importance of proper, root and branch, regulation.
HOT PRESS SAYS:
In 2017, Hot Press first highlighted the risk of Facebook ads being used as a weapon, by outside interests, in the referendum to Repeal the 8th Amendment. It was our understanding that anti-choice groups from the US, and elsewhere, were planning to pump money into the ’No’ campaign, using Facebook and Google advertising to micro-target individuals with anti-choice propaganda.
It was also of major concern that ads of this kind would be deliberately malicious and misleading – as had been the case in the context of the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK and the Trump .v. Clinton U.S. Presidential election. During these campaigns, intimate information gleaned from people’s activities on social media, and via their smartphones, had been harvested by the Brexit and Trump campaigns, enabling the customisation of targeted, under-the-radar ads, deploying doctored videos, fake information, invented statistics and graphic images, to play on the prejudices and insecurities of groups or individuals, all the better to persuade them into a particular voting preference.
Some of these advertising campaigns were run by rogue States, determined to cause as much disruption as possible, the ultimate goal of which was to undermine the belief of citizens in the democratic process.
Hot Press didn’t want the same thing to happen here. Nor did we want the ’No’ side to gain any unfair advantage. And so we asked Facebook what they planned to do to ensure that the integrity of the referendum would not be undermined.
Hot Press was subsequently joined by others calling for a response from the digital media giants. As the campaign progressed, pressure on Facebook mounted. In the end, a few weeks before polling day, Facebook decided that no ads would be accepted from people outside the State. In response to the now widespread concerns, fellow tech giants Google went further, banning all advertising related to the Referendum for the remainder of the campaign.
Predictably, the ‘No’ side moaned. A major, final digital push had been planned, with money coming from who-knows-where to drive what was a Brexit-like anti-Government line. It was a victory for common sense – and for balance – in that the digital giants had been persuaded not to aid and abet a nastily reactionary campaign. What difference it made to the final outcome can never be measured. But the scale of the final victory for the ‘Yes’ side would likely have been less if all ads had been allowed to run, irrespective of their origin, truthfulness or any other consideration which normally comes into play where advertising in traditional media is concerned.
You can see that there is an attempt by Facebook to address at least some of these issues in the plans unveiled today, in advance of the European elections.
That they chose the European elections to introduce these measures might seem odd, and in many ways it is: this is one election where national boundaries are less important. That said, the political eco system in every country is specific, and to allow pan-European campaigns might distort that. To take Ireland as an example – there is far less support here for far right parties than is the case across Europe. It is certainly in our interests that a concerted, pan-European far right advertising push not be facilitated.
On the other hand, as has been pointed out by Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, it remains unclear if what is proposed can adequately address the use of social media to disseminate propaganda.
When does a post become political? Any Facebook user can publish false and misleading information about the EU. Campaigns are being created all the time on issues to do with the environment, with immigration, with nationalist anti-EU agendas – and so on. How will disinformation on sites like these be affected by the new measures? And what about apparently innocent ads that drive people to these pages?
Facebook say that they have been mapping out the parties and the candidates – but it is naive to imagine that it is the under the names of the parties or the candidates that dark ads will be taken.
Facebook is getting its retaliation in first, by acknowledging that the system will not be water-tight and they are asking people to alert them to anything which has bypassed the vetting, labelling process. But this too is naive. The ads will be targeted towards the most likely potential sympathisers. In all likelihood they will only be reported if they are badly misdirected to ’the other side’.
It seems that no matter what way you approach it, the issue of political advertising on Facebook, and other social media sites, is a minefield. The only way of managing it is for Governments, or ideally the EU, to introduce a stringent, detailed regulatory regime, covering every aspect of the operations of social media companies. And the first piece in that jigsaw will be to identify them for what they are – which is publishers and broadcasters, who must be held accountable for everything they publish or broadcast, in precisely the same way that Hot Press is.