Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg
Justin Sullivan / David Ramos / Getty Images
  • Facebook is adding new verification requirements for ads on its platform about social issues, elections, and politics ahead of the 2020 US election.
  • Starting in mid-September, organisations will have to prove they are registered with the US government to run political ads, and a disclaimer on the ad will list them as a "Confirmed Organisation."
  • Smaller organisations not registered with the U.S. government can still run political ads, but they will have to provide additional verification information, and will not be listed as a "Confirmed Organisation."
  • While the new requirements are an improvement, Facebook still faces limitations for political ad transparency because of weak corporate ownership disclosure laws in the US, data rights advocate David Carroll told Business Insider.
  • For more stories go to www.businessinsider.co.za.

Facebook will require political advertisers to provide more information about their organisation in order to run ads about social issues, elections, or politics in the US, the company said in a blog post on Wednesday.

The new requirements, which will go into effect in mid-September, are meant to bolster the platform's security and transparency ahead of the 2020 presidential election. After Russian agents posted divisive social and political ads on Facebook days before the 2016 election, the platform began requiring anyone buying these types of ads to verify their location and identity in early 2018.

However, the changes did not go far enough. Facebook added a "Paid for by" disclaimer on political ads, but it was easily manipulated and had weak verification standards, so almost anyone could impersonate an organisation or hide their true identity.

That will change ahead of the 2020 election. Facebook is requiring that organisations prove who they say they are by providing either a tax-registered organisation identification number, a government website domain that matches an email ending in .gov or .mil, or a Federal Election Commission identification number.

This will verify that an organisation is registered with the US government, and only then will they be able to use their registered organisation name on ad disclaimers - and the "i" icon in the upper right hand corner of the ad will list them as a "Confirmed Organisation."

Smaller businesses and local politicians who may not have that information can instead submit an organisation name by providing a phone number, mail-deliverable address, business email, and a business website with a domain that matches the email.

A Russia ad on Facebook in 2016
US House Intelligence Committee

Or, they can rely on the Page Admin's legal name on their personal identification document, in which case they will not be able to list an organisation name on the ad disclaimer. In both of these cases, the "i" icon will read "About this ad" instead of "Confirmed Organisation."

The new requirements are a "good improvement" and "kind of a no-brainer," says David Carroll, a data rights advocate who was encouraging Facebook to add more government verifications for political advertisers.

Carroll has been pursuing stronger transparency for political advertisements since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when he attempted to get hold of his own data from the organisation under British law - a protection that he wouldn't have been afforded in the US.

This won't stop anonymous LLCs from running political ads

Similarly, Carroll says Facebook has limitations for ad disclaimers because of another difference in US and UK law.

The UK requires corporate ownership disclosures through a government agency and website called Companies House. According to Carroll, this website made it possible to find out more information about what Cambridge Analytica really was, and who the owners were.

The corporate ownership disclosure laws are not as strong in the US, and in some states, it's possible to create anonymous LLC's without providing identity or much ownership information at all.

That's not something Facebook can necessarily fix - but it is still a way for sketchy operations to run political advertisements on Facebook and provide little information about who they actually are.

"At a certain point, Facebook won't be able to do any more verifications because the US allows secret LLCs," Carroll told Business Insider. "At that point it's up to Congress to require corporate ownership disclosures like we see in UK on Companies House."

Facebook, too, recognises that its work is far from finished.

"While our efforts to protect elections are ongoing and won't be perfect, they will make it harder for advertisers to obscure who is behind ads and will provide greater transparency for people," the company wrote in the blog post.

Even though Facebook is providing more transparency on political ads, companies like Cambridge Analytica boasted of their ability to run far-reaching influence campaigns with fake blogs, events, and memes - none of which qualify as political ads.

It remains to be seen what plans, if any, Facebook has for this kind of content ahead of 2020.

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