Tired of being targeted by Facebook ads showing Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match where the future of the Republic depends on whose limb gives out first? Well, you’re in luck.
You still may see those ads. But at least now you will know who’s paying for them.
That’s because on Thursday tech giant Facebook rolled out a new political ad disclosure database that will allow users to search for political and issue ads run on the platform, view all ads being run by verified political and policy groups, see the money those groups are spending on Facebook ads, and pinpoint the demographics they are targeting with those ads.
The database is Facebook’s latest response to criticism over the opacity of malicious advertising on its platform during the 2016 campaign and, perhaps, its most aggressive. The company also told reporters on Thursday that it plans to hire between 3,000 and 4,000 employees to monitor ads for political content. Additionally, those employees will be tasked with reviewing ads reported by users using a new feature allowing anyone on Facebook to flag political ads that haven’t been properly disclosed.
“We believe in giving legitimate campaigns a voice—while also helping to make sure that people can find out who is trying to influence their vote and why,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government Outreach Director, in a statement on the rollout. “We think this is a significant step toward that end.”
The new disclosure database is a significant step towards ad transparency for a major hub of political influence. It comes as Congress considers legislation that would boost disclosure requirements for online political advertising by classifying them in the same category as ads on TV, radio, or other media.
The announcement on Thursday is in response to months of scrutiny of the company’s role in efforts by malicious actors during the 2016 campaign, in particular agents affiliated with the Russian government, to sow discord in the American electorate and tip the scales of the election in favor of President Donald Trump. Those efforts included the infamous ad of Jesus and Satan arm-wrestling for the outcome of the 2016 election, which implored users to “press ‘like’ to help Jesus win!” Others were more pernicious, attempting to stoke racial tensions and fuel suspicion of immigrants and refugees.
In a series of congressional hearings last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by lawmakers of both parties over the company’s political ad disclosure policies and efforts to combat surreptitious influence operations.
The new ad disclosure platform will make available information on ads beyond those that explicitly call for the election or defeat of a political candidate. It will also include “issue ads” that take sides on one of 20 high-profile political matters, including health care, civil rights, taxes, and criminal justice. Facebook said on a conference call with reporters on Thursday that it expects to expand the range of issues covered in consultation with the polling and survey firm YouGov.
Good government groups greeted Facebook’s announcement on Thursday with cautious optimism.
“My initial reaction is that this is a more in-depth explanation of how Facebook is going to define a ‘political ad subject to these new measures than I’ve previously seen,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, which has worked to step up online advertising disclosure requirements.
Facebook appears to be leading its competitors in the political disclosure arena. In October, Twitter pledged a new “ad transparency center” in the “coming weeks,” but has yet to unveil any comprehensive database of political or issue advertising on its platform.
But though Facebook is taking such steps, it’s also raising some additional questions about how it manages its political advertising. “There are still outstanding questions about the reach of some of these measures,” Fischer said. He pointed to recent reporting on Facebook verification measures that would have the effect of barring undocumented immigrants from buying ads on the platform to advocate various immigration policy measures.
“We can anticipate some gripes from individuals who will have to go through the verification process for ads that may not be overtly political, and we can also anticipate that Facebook’s reviewers will miss some political ads,” Fischer said. “It seems that Facebook recognizes that this is going to be a process that involves continual learning, and hopefully it isn’t something they’ll abandon once public attention turns elsewhere.”