As campaign advertisers start to feel the impact of Facebook’s new political ad policies, practitioners tell C&E a litany of questions about the process remain.
Over the past week, C&E asked a range of digital consultants about the impact of the new transparency push. Strategists generally agree on the importance of the effort, but expressed both practical and strategic concerns.
Mark Jablonowski, CTO at DSPolitical, said one worry is that the new rules could constrain smaller campaigns and may very well not go far enough to curtail the possibility of foreign manipulation given that the changes thus far relate to paid advertising.
“A large part of the issue in 2016 was with bots and commandeering organic pages,” he noted.
While Jablonowski applauded the push for accountable advertising as “good for politics and good for the industry as a whole,” he worries specifically about the potential burden some changes may place on smaller campaigns with finite time and resources.
“A local campaign that gets late fundraising has still got to have the knowledge about how to become a verified page owner—that’s a week or two long endeavor,” he said.
Back in April, Facebook announced its intention to implement the first set of major changes, including verification requirements for Facebook page admins and the launch of an archive of political ads run on the platform that will include detail on the level of spend and some demographic information on who consumed the ads. The archive officially launched in late May at the same time the platform began enforcing its new verification rules.
Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson, who has expressed doubt about Facebook’s ability to police itself and has argued increased regulation of the platform is necessary, labeled the rollout a “PR stunt.”
“I suspect there will be lots of changes over the near term,” he said. “I just went through the verification process myself. Terrible user interface, missing buttons and that kind of stuff.”
Other digital strategists pointed to similar early issues with the ad placement and approval process, even upon completing verification.
A larger strategic concern: how much will Facebook’s new transparency push lay bare the digital targeting priorities of individual campaigns? And will the amount of detail provided expand beyond what’s available now?
Facebook’s archive of political ads currently provides some limited demographic data about who saw a given ad. What it doesn’t yet offer is a detailed breakdown of who the ad was targeted to and whether specific cohorts were included or not in the targeting.
Samantha Osborne, the director of digital strategy at Advoc8 and the former digital director at the Republican National Committee, said even in limited form there’s an advantage to knowing some detail.
“It’s a way to get insight into what your competitors are doing,” she said “To see who’s active.”
Advertisers running ads with political content must verify their identity and location. And the platform now includes a “Paid for by” disclosure on all “election-related and issue ads” on both Facebook and Instagram.
Pat Jakopchek, a partner at the Democratic firm LPS campaigns, flagged the disclosure process as a concern for anyone seeking real transparency on the platform. As it’s currently setup, he noted, Facebook isn’t actually taking the extra step of fact checking those disclosures.
“Facebook has said they won't fact check that. There’s nothing that prevents somebody from making up something entirely in there,” said Jakopchek, “While the same could theoretically be done in other mediums, the volume of ad traffic Facebook handles and potential narrowness of its audiences means even this new system could be ripe for abuse.”
For those looking to follow the rules, he said, this will provide a bit more clarity, but “it still doesn’t do anything about dark money or the issues of 501(c)(4)s that regularly arise in politics these days.”
Amid the rollout, concerns over Facebook’s privacy and data sharing policies persist. Federal lawmakers now have new questions for the social media giant following a New York Times report that highlighted data sharing partnerships with the likes of Apple, Amazon, and others. And on Monday, Washington State filed suit against Facebook and Google, accusing both of failing to follow state campaign finance law related to political ad disclosures.
Legislators and regulators are also still examining potential solutions, albeit slowly. The Federal Election Commission has proposed new disclosure rules for digital ads, but it appears unlikely to implement any new rules ahead of this year’s midterm elections. And in Congress, momentum on The Honest Ads Act has stalled.
Meanwhile, other industry self-regulatory efforts have moved forward. The Digital Advertising Alliance recently launched an initiative that includes a “PoliticalAd” icon for advocacy advertisers in top-level campaigns. The DAA has urged the FEC to use the initiative as a model in its own regulatory effort.