Ad Transparency Coming to Facebook, But What’s Up with Google?

Oct 31, 2017

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I bet Facebook is a really stressful place to work these days. Last week, Facebook announced the latest step it’s taking to combat “fake news.” This time Facebook is focusing on transparency in advertising. Rob Goldman, VP of Ads, wrote on the company’s website:

“Starting next month, people will be able to click ‘View Ads’ on a Page and view ads a Page is running on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger — whether or not the person viewing is in the intended target audience for the ad. All Pages will be part of this effort, and we will require that all ads be associated with a Page as part of the ad creation process. We will start this test in Canada and roll it out to the US by this summer, ahead of the US midterm elections in November, as well as broadly to all other countries around the same time.”

Facebook isn’t stopping there. Political advertisers will have to verify their identity, their location, and that their ad is actually election-related. And they will be tagged with familiar “paid for by” message that we all know from TV ads, but you’ll also be able to click on it for more information. Additionally, Facebook will build a searchable archive of these ads, and running tallies of the amount spent.

Still, it seems easy enough to game that system. Just list your political ad as an entertainment ad instead and target the same group of people. Facebook is one step ahead of you, and plans to use machine learning to identify ads that may not be tagged as political, but should be.

But Facebook isn’t the only web giant selling ads to people who want to sway elections. Google has its own problem. Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, wrote in The Washington Post, “To date, the bulk of public attention has focused on Facebook. But this is not just a Facebook story. This is as much, if not more, about America’s gatekeeper to news and information and by far the world’s dominant digital advertising platform: Google.” Kint called on congress to demand a fully transparent accounting of Russian use of its platform to interfere in the U.S. election. But he’s skeptical that the digital giant won’t weasel out of it, because it managed to convince the FEC its short ads should be exempt from regulation. “The FEC exemption was granted and the floodgate opened for any entity on the planet to place a political ad on Google with no disclosure requirements at all,” writes Kint.

Google claimed that Russian agents spent less than $100,000 on Google ads (as if that’s supposed to make us feel better), but Kint rightly points out that it's entirely possible Google has no idea how much was really spent on these kind of ads because it doesn’t actually have to ask who was posting an ad, or what the nature of the ad was.

That should worry you—and we should all be demanding Google deliver the same kind of transparency.

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