Tech

Stealth political ads flourish on Facebook

More than half of Facebook pages that displayed U.S. political ads during a recent 13-month period concealed the identities of their backers, according to research reviewed by POLITICO — a tide of deceptive messaging that raises new questions about the social networks promises of transparency.

The stealth political ads were worth at least $37 million, equivalent to 6 percent of all the money spent on Facebook ads in the U.S. during the research period, from May 2018 until June 2019, according to estimates from New York University researchers.

The academics also found evidence that partisan groups across the political spectrum had created 16 clusters of inauthentic communities that bought ads aimed at swaying potential voters, borrowing from tactics Russian operatives had employed during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

The findings cast doubt over Facebooks ability to enforce its own transparency rules across its global platforms, which are already playing an outsize role in spreading political messages to voters ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The rules require buyers of political ads to identify who is paying for them after criticism of Facebooks role in the 2016 vote.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebooks chief executive, had assured Congress that his company was ratcheting up its efforts to root out interference ahead of Novembers presidential election.

Facebooks platforms have sold more than 7 million political ads in the U.S. worth more than $1.1 billion since May 2018

But political parties and digital campaign groups are growing increasingly sophisticated in gaming the rules and eluding Facebooks attempts to uproot underhand behavior, the NYU researchers warned.

As U.S. voters gear up to head to the polls later this year, campaigns and online activists are already reworking their tactics, including paying social media influencers to promote partisan messages, to bypass Facebooks rules on online political ads.

“Theres very little to stop someone from opening a Facebook page, running political ads, getting caught and repeating that cycle,” said Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYUs Online Political Ads Transparency Project, who co-authored the study of ads on Facebook and Instagram, its photo-sharing platform. “Were not really in a better position to know whats going on now than we did in 2016.”

In response, Facebook said its political transparency tools were better than those offered on television or radio, and pointed to a series of steps it had taken to clamp down on wrongdoing.

They include efforts announced late last year aimed at clamping down on digital misinformation, labeling content from government-backed news outlets like Russia Today, and making it more clear to voters that political groups had bought messages on both Facebook and Instagram.

The social network, though, has rejected a complete ban on all political advertising — a step taken by Twitter — and lawmakers have criticized the company for refusing to remove deceptive ads posted by candidates, including Donald Trump.

Facebooks platforms have sold more than 7 million political ads in the U.S. worth more than $1.1 billion since May 2018, according to the companys online ad-tracking library — dwarfing the $216 million that Google and its YouTube video platform have sold over the same period, according to the search giants figures.

Top spenders on Facebook include former U.S Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg, who has spent almost $60 million since he joined the presidential race, and Trump, who has forked out $26 million over the same period.

At congressional hearings and in a round of interviews in late October, Zuckerberg said the tech giant had turned a corner in its fight to keep bad actors from using its network to deceive voters.

“Weve gone from being on our back foot to now proactively going after some of the biggest threats that are out there,” Zuckerberg told reporters. “Weve built systems to fight interference that we believe are more advanced than what any other company is doing — and most governments.”

Still not enough

But the NYU researchers discovered several loopholes that allowed Facebook pages that had bought more than 350,000 political ads, worth at least $37 million, to avoid ever having to disclose who was behind them. That represented 54.6 percent of all Facebook pages whose ads were included in the companys online register of political messages.

The dollar figure is an estimate and may be higher because Facebook does not publish the exact figures spent on online ads across its platforms.

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook imposed rules that required political advertisers to include a message on all paid-for posts disclosing who was behind them. The goal was to allow voters to understand which groups were targeting them on social media.

The company also created an online register of all political ads, though the database remains difficult to access and fails to capture all paid-for messages bought by political campaigners. It often does not immediately know when partisan ads run on its global platforms, according to the NYU research.

To analyze how actors were buying political messages on Facebook and Instagram, Edelson and her co-authors, Damon McCoy and Tobias Lauinger, created a database of all available paid-for messages that had run on the companys platforms in the U.S. for 13 months ending June 1, 2019. The researchers incorporated the companys own ad library with an independent dataset pulled directly from Facebooks online database of political ads.

The NYU academics then combined all ads from the same buyer to avoid duplication, cross-referenced their dataset with Facebooks records and tracked how long it took the social network to add undisclosed political ads to its ad library.

The research represents the largest effort, so far, to determine how successful Facebook has been in meeting Zuckerbergs promises to clamp down on the worst offenders, including potential foreign actors targeting the upcoming U.S. presidential election and elsewhere.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Facebook found it difficult to keep up with the pace of stealth political activity on its network, according to the NYU research.

During the 13-month research period, for instance, the academics said that the number of partisan paid-for messages whose backers were not disclosed did not decline, despite Facebooks multi-million dollar investments targeted at those who tried to circumvent its systems.

Among the groups that repeatedly did not disclose their political affiliations were several U.S. government agencies, as well as Xinhua News, the media outlet owned by the Chinese government. Despite Facebook outlawing such foreign spending on ads connected to domestic U.S. political topics, Xinhua News spent at least $16,600 on 51 undisclosed political ads, based on the NYU data.

“You want to figure out where the weak points are,” Edelson, the NYU researcher, said in reference to Facebooks online systems. “But everything is a weak point.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebooks head of cybersecurity policy, told POLITICO that political actors had increasingly turned to not disclosing who was behind online political ads, in part because of the companys clampdown on who could target voters.

The tech giant would now force any Facebook page that failed to publish who was buying ads on its behalf to go through an additional verification step, though Gleicher acknowledged it was a game of cat-and-mouse with those who did not want to play by the rules.

“There is an evolution of tactics,” he said. “We would expect actors to try other techniques, including running pages that fail to disclose whos behind them and pretend that theyre independent.”

Inauthentic online communities

Alongside the almost $40 million of political ads that did not disclose their backers, the NYU academics also found 16 clusters of Facebook pages which spent, collectively, $3.8 million on political ads, that had run the same paid-for messages while pretending to be different organizations.

That was a common deceptive tactic of the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in St. Petersburg, Russia, that used Facebook and other online platforms to try to influence U.S. voters on behalf of Moscow in 2016, according to U.S. intelligence agencies. The social network has repeatedly clamped down on groups that oRead More – Source