Facebook, Google and Twitter are sending their general counsels to testify at Senate and House Intelligence committee hearings on Nov. 1. The day before, the companies are due to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it’s not clear yet which executives will attend.
The new policies announced by Facebook and Twitter this week are part of a campaign to show they’re capable of policing their own networks. Both companies along with Google face a grilling from lawmakers who’ve become convinced Silicon Valley was willfully ignorant of Russian efforts to use social media to manipulate American democracy.
Facebook gave details of a series of changes first announced by CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month. The company will put pop-up banners on political ads in its news feed that indicate who paid for them. It will also verify advertisers before they’re allowed to purchase such ads. The social network declined to specify how that verification process will work, though Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of advertising, said it will involve a mix of “manual and automated systems.”
Facebook on Friday unveiled changes to its advertising platform designed to protect election integrity, as the nation’s top internet companies rush to show they’re taking congressional complaints seriously ahead of a slew of hearings on Russian interference.
“We’re going to bring Facebook to a higher level of transparency” than television and other media when it comes to political ad disclosure, Goldman said. The changes will be tested in Canada starting next month and rolled out in the U.S. beginning next summer ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
What’s more, for all advertising — political and otherwise — Facebook will aggregate every spot purchased by an advertiser on a special page, making them visible to users even if they’re not part of the intended audience. That cache will include details on the demographics of those targeted by the ads and how many times they were viewed. Facebook will maintain a searchable archive of each advertiser’s political ads going back four years, the company said.
On Tuesday, Twitter announced it will launch an “advertising transparency center” that discloses information about all of the ads running on its platform. The company also said it would ban Kremlin-funded, English-language media outlets RT and Sputnik from advertising on Twitter, and pledged to donate the $1.9 million it has earned from their ads since 2011 to research on “the use of Twitter in civic engagement and elections.”
“Clearly they are feeling quite a bit of pressure from the public, from Capitol Hill, from the investigation, to do something,” said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause, a government transparency group. “I think they’re in crisis PR mode.”
After the 2016 election, amid reports that Russian-linked fake news promoted Donald Trump and sought to damage Hillary Clinton, Zuckerberg called it a “pretty crazy idea” that Facebook had anything to do with the outcome. But the company has since reversed course, with the CEO apologizing for dismissing such concerns. Facebook this month shared 3,000 Russia-linked ads with congressional investigators and has said it plans to turn over so-called organic content, which includes unpaid posts, though it has not said when that will happen.
Facebook has long resisted efforts to apply federal election ad disclosure rules to social media, but a recently introduced bipartisan bill called the Honest Ads Act, sponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would create a series of new transparency rules for online ads. The measure, which has a House companion from Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), has been gaining attention in recent weeks. The announcements by Facebook and Twitter this week mimic some, but not all, of the requirements outlined in the legislation.
Interactive Advertising Bureau CEO Randall Rothenberg said in an interview that government regulation has a role to play, but argued industry can more effectively impose and update its own rules and rely on third parties to ensure they’re enforced. The group counts more than 650 members, including Facebook, Twitter and Google.