Hard Questions: Why Doesn’t Facebook Just Ban Political Ads?

Hard Questions is a series from Facebook that addresses the impact of our products on society.

By Katie Harbath, Global Politics and Government Outreach Director, and Steve Satterfield, Director, Public Policy

Political advertising serves an important purpose. It helps candidates share their views with the public more broadly, and it can help encourage people to get involved in the political process. But political ads can also stoke partisanship or fear as well as manipulate and deceive — all of which we experienced with the Russian-backed ads on Facebook before, during and after the 2016 US presidential election.

It’s why, over the last year and a half we’ve taken a hard look at political advertising — including asking ourselves the question: why don’t we just ban it altogether?

Some people argued that getting rid of these ads from Facebook was the only sure-fire way of guarding against foreign interference. But there were passionate voices on the other side — and their argument was not about revenue because policing these ads going forward, for example verifying the advertisers who run them, is going to be costly. The case they made was that banning political ads on Facebook would tilt the scales in favor of incumbent politicians and candidates with deep pockets. Digital advertising is typically more affordable than TV or print ads, giving less well-funded candidates a relatively economical way to reach their future constituents. Similarly, it would make it harder for people running for local office — who can’t afford larger media buys — to get their message out. And issue ads also help raise awareness of important challenges, mobilizing people across communities to fight for a common cause.

Having agreed that the benefits outweighed the potential harm, we then focused on the different ways in which to prevent bad actors abusing our systems. Key here will be transparency. Because greater transparency will lead to increased responsibility and accountability over time for advertisers.

Starting today, people in the US will be able to see who’s running a political ad, how much money was spent on it, how widely it was seen, and who the ad reached — for example age, gender and location. Advertisers will also have to share who paid for the ad. This is part of a broader authorization process, announced last year, that lets us verify that the people running these ads are who they claim to be. Helping people to understand who’s trying to influence their vote will help us better defend against foreign interference and other abuse.

Defining Political

To build this feature we needed to decide how to define “political.” Ads that advocate for a certain candidate or ballot measure are clearly political. Yet many organizations, like political action committees, also try to sway voters through ads that focus on issues, without mentioning a candidate. And many of the Internet Research Agency ads focused on stirring-up emotions on divisive issues, not electoral races. We decided that our definition of political content should include both electoral and issue-based ads. So the next question was, how should we define “issues”?

In the US, there aren’t laws or federal agencies that list specific issues that are subject to regulation. But to have a policy that our reviewers can enforce, they need a list explaining what’s OK and what’s not. So we looked to the non-partisan Comparative Agendas Project (CAP). For decades, CAP has collected information on the policy processes of governments around the world and used that information to develop a list of common terms related to politics and issues. Working closely with them, we landed on a list of 20 initial issues. We then wrote a policy that applies to any ads that take a position on one of those issues — for example abortion, guns, immigration or foreign policy — with the goal of either influencing public debate, promoting a ballot measure or electing a candidate.

Here’s how it works in practice. Education is one issue listed among the 20. But our policy would only apply to those ads trying to achieve a political purpose, for example, education reform or a new student loan policy, not ads for a university or scholarship. Other cases are more nuanced. An ad from an immigration lawyer would not be tagged as an issue ad. But if essentially the same ad were to also advocate for immigration reform in any way, it would be considered political and be subject to our policy.

Policy in Practice

To enforce the policy, we’ll check both the images and text in an ad, and who is being targeted. And, if the ad sends a person to an outside website, we’ll check the landing page as well. In addition, our technology can identify election ads and prevent them from running if the advertiser hasn’t been authorized. These systems can also identify some issue ads and will get better the more ad reviews we do.

We won’t always get it right. We know we’ll miss some ads and in other cases we’ll identify some we shouldn’t. We’ll keep working on the process and improve as we go. We’re also asking people to help us identify ads that might be problematic. If you see an ad with political content that doesn’t have a label, or any that you think may not be allowed, please flag it to us for review.

Our policy will develop as public debate shifts to new issues, and we’re partnering with the research firm YouGov to help identify these types of changes. In the coming months we’ll expand our ad transparency features to other countries and work with international partners to determine what issues to include for each country.

Deciding what is or is not a political issue is inherently controversial, and not everyone will agree with our approach. Others will continue to argue that we’d all be better off without these ads on Facebook. But 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. We think this is a significant step toward that end.

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