Facebook user on a phone

Facebook forces UK political ad sponsors to reveal identity

Image credit: Dreamstime

The social media giant has announced that it will require UK political parties and interest groups to verify their identity and location in order to place adverts on Facebook, in an effort to crack down on “dark ads”.

Facebook has come under repeated criticism over the past year, not just for scandals relating to data protection failures, but for the spread of manipulative, false and opaque political adverts in the run-up to major democratic events.

The 2016 US presidential election was heavily targeted by a Kremlin-backed influence operation aiming to discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, boost Republican candidate Donald Trump and sow wider social discord; thousands of US Facebook adverts reaching 126 million people were traced to the Russian effort. In the UK, the campaign group Vote Leave was fined and reported to the police by the Electoral Commission for illegally funnelling £675,315 into another pro-Brexit campaign group, largely for social media campaigning.

After these issues came to light, the Electoral Commission published guidelines calling for the UK government to make it easier for voters to find out who is targeting them online and for social media companies to take action to make digital political advertising more transparent and honest, with the threat of regulation should they fail to do so. Similar regulations have already been discussed in the US.

Starting this week, political advertisers must prove their identity and location (such as by providing a passport, driving license or residence permit) in a process checked by an independent party. In order to be permanently registered as a legitimate political advertiser, they must receive a letter at a UK postal address to prove that they are resident in the country.

Facebook transparency tools

Facebook

Image credit: Facebook

UK Facebook users will be able to use new tools to see clearly who has sponsored the content as it appears, with a “paid for” disclaimer prominently attached. Users will be able to tag this content as misleading. The company will also provide a public archive of political adverts which will retain all relevant adverts and associated information for up to seven years after they were placed. These tools will also be applicable to Facebook-owned Instagram.

Similar tools were launched in April in Brazil and the US, in preparation for high-stakes elections with significant likelihood of improper interference. Twitter has also launched tools of its own.

“While we are pleased with the progress we have seen in the countries where we have rolled out the tools, we understand that they will not prevent abuse entirely,” said Richard Allan, Facebook’s head of public policy, and Rob Leathern, Facebook product management director, writing in a blog post.

“We’re up against smart and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse, but we believe that this higher level of transparency is good for democracy and is good for the electoral process. Transparency helps everyone, including political watchdog groups and reporters, and keeps advertisers accountable for who they say they are and what they say to different groups.”

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