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Facebook to label political ads ahead of European elections

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With elections to the European Parliament – the legislative branch of the EU – just weeks away, Facebook has announced that it will be tagging political adverts with information about how they ended up in users’ feeds.

The 2019 European Parliament elections will run between 23 and 26 May. Approximately half a billion Europeans are expected to vote for 751 MEPs via proportional representation.

Facebook is facing serious and widespread criticism for its failure to acknowledge and confront how social media has been exploited to undermine democracy, particularly via the spread of state-backed misinformation. A UK parliamentary committee recently warned that fake news on social media was putting democracy “at risk”, while last week European leaders warned of the need to protect democracy from the spread of disinformation across the continent, calling on social media companies to “ensure higher standards of responsibility and transparency”.

In response, the social media behemoth is introducing new rules to provide greater transparency around political adverts. The new rules – which have already been rolled out in some form in the UK, US, India and elsewhere – came into force across the EU today, 29 March 2019.

From now on, political adverts displayed on Facebook in EU countries will include labels disclosing the sponsor. By clicking ‘See ad details’, users can read information about the sponsors, as well as how much they paid for the advert, and which group of people were targeted with the advert. Adverts about political news from legitimate publishers will be exempt from the rules.

Advertisers will also be asked to submit documents and complete technical checks to confirm their identity and location, in an attempt to prevent foreign agents influencing elections. According to Facebook, this will be enforced through a combination of automated systems and user reports. Groups which fail to complete the registration process will have their political and issue adverts blocked from mid-April.

“We are confident this will be a real barrier for anyone thinking of using our ads to interfere in an election from outside of a country,” said Richard Allen, Facebook’s global policy solutions chief, writing in a blog post. Thousands of political adverts sowing discord and undermining Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton were sponsored by Kremlin-backed actors during the 2016 US presidential election campaign. A smaller number of Facebook adverts were bought by Russian agents and boosted in the UK in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum.

Facebook’s long-awaited ‘Ad Library’ database will also store political and issue adverts and information about them (such as how many people saw the advert) for seven years, for anyone to access.

“As well as allowing anyone to browse and search in the library, we are expanding access to our API, so news organisations, regulators, watchdog groups and people can hold advertisers and us more accountable,” Allen wrote. He added that he did not want anybody to doubt that transparency around political advertising was a “top priority” for Facebook.

In February, EU officials admonished Facebook for its reported reluctance to share important data relating to its crackdown on misinformation campaigns. Social media platforms have agreed to work voluntarily with officials to stamp out the practice in order to avoid regulation.

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