- Facebook will show its UK users who is paying to target them with online political ads from Tuesday.
- The company will both label ads as they appear in its News Feed, and archive all political ads in a searchable library which will retain ads for seven years. The changes also apply to Instagram.
- The new tools are a direct response to global criticism of Facebook’s role in the US presidential election, the UK Brexit referendum, and other elections.
- The increased transparency may give political parties and groups pause before they launch divisive ads only intended to be seen by small audiences.
Facebook will show British voters which political parties, pressure groups, and other organisations might be paying to influence their vote and opinions through online advertising.
The decision means that, starting on Tuesday, Facebook will show how Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and other political parties and groups target voters with advertising.
The social network will on Tuesday release a library of political ads showing who has paid for individual political ads on its main site and on Instagram, approximately how much was spent, and which demographic the ad was aimed at. All ads will appear in the library, no matter how small the target audience is.
It will also label political ads in the News Feed with a “Paid for by” label showing which organisation is behind a paid post.
Any ad that references political figures, parties, elections, and legislation or referenda that are in the news will automatically be classed as a political ad. That means any ads relating to Brexit, next year’s local elections, or anything about prime minister Theresa May or Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would likely be classified as political advertising.
Facebook will use a mix of human moderators and machine learning to categorise ads. It will also rely on users to flag subtler political ads.
While Facebook will indicate spend on particular ads, it won’t break down in detail how ads are targeted. For example, Facebook won’t show whether a party targeted ads by “interest”, which can sometimes indicate more sensitive information like race.
Articles from British media relating to politics will also appear in the ads library, though under a separate label.
To try and stamp out fake actors posting divisive ads, Facebook will ask anyone who wants to post a political ad on behalf of a party, candidate, or organisation to go through a verification process.
Individuals posting a political ad will need some form of official ID, such as their driving licence, and a valid UK address before they are allowed to post a paid ad. Facebook will post a code to that address, which the individual will need to enter into the site before they can continue posting ads.
There is a grace period until November 7, before which political parties and individuals can self-identify as political advertisers. After that, Facebook will automatically begin categorising ads into its library. It will keep political ads in its searchable archive for 7 years, and that library will be available to anyone with or without a Facebook account.
The new tool was created directly in response to global criticism at Facebook’s role in the US presidential election, the UK’s Brexit referendum, and other elections around the world. A UK parliamentary committee, led by Conservative MP Damian Collins, wrung a promise from Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer that the company would begin labelling political ads before local elections in 2019.
The company has made similar tools available in the US and Brazil.
What does Facebook showing political ad information mean for the general public?
Facebook’s shift towards transparency around online advertising will likely be seen as a welcome first step. For the most part, it is currently hard for voters to see how political parties and other groups target particular individuals or groups through online advertising. A library of ads will allow the media and public to scrutinise political messages and the intent behind them.
Increased transparency may also give political parties pause before they launch highly targeted, divisive ads that are targeted at a small online audience but might normally go unnoticed by the political press. Now every ad will be visible for seven years via Facebook’s political ad library, and anything that looks divisive may come back to haunt a candidate or party in later years.
The new transparency tools are not explicitly designed to prevent misinformation campaigns by foreign trolls. Facebook instead has a dedicated team to sniff out what it describes as “inauthentic behaviour.” Rather, they allow voters (and rival parties and candidates) to see what messages parties are peddling.
Facebook will allow researchers, journalists, and third-parties access to its ads library data through a set of APIs, the company said.
A spokesman for the UK’s election watchdog, the Electoral Commission, told Business Insider: “We welcome any changes that will help voters see who is targeting them with political messages online. This Facebook initiative is an important first step in providing voters with improved transparency. We will be monitoring how these changes are implemented and the impact they have, and we look forward to proposals from other digital advertising platforms in the UK.”
A spokesman for the Labour party said: “Labour welcomes efforts to ensure that in the future, campaigning on social media is just as transparent as more traditional campaigning methods.”
The Conservatives did not respond to a request for comment.
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