Tech

Political advertisers find ways to bypass Facebook advertising regulations

About a year ago, Facebook announced that it would be establishing an advertising database to make it available for researchers, journalists, and the public. The database was tested successfully in Canada and the United States, and Facebook plans to introduce a UK version within the next few months.

In the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandals, the political ads archive has been especially effective in improving user trust in the platform. The database allows full transparency on which ads are running, how much money is being spent on them, and who is being targeted by them. Also, anyone who buys political ads must register with a government ID, using a code linked to their personal address.

The ads themselves tell a story about how advertisers are using Facebook to influence user behaviour, while also ensuring advertisers are who they say they are.

Facebook has said it plans to improve the archive over time and has established a “war room” to filter through different political advertisers. However,  just a weeks before the election, there have been some serious flaws that advertisers have used to bypass transparency initiatives.

According to The Atlantic, there is a loophole that allows advertisers to hide their identities by routing donations through limited liability corporations (LLCs). In the Atlantic’s op-ed, they examine MotiveAl, a company founded by David Fletcher, Facebook’s first (and only) managing editor. He had been hired during Facebook’s early explorations of journalism, and has now created a company that according to its website, “works with a small group of clients to spread ideas”.

MotiveAl has been discovered to have connections with a sketchy entity called “New for Democracy”. This company creates political advocacy advertisements and uses them to promote the fourteen pages that it owns. The ads thus far have mainly contained endorsements of universal healthcare. According to vast majority of the targeting has been aimed at Arkansas women between the ages of 55-64, and Kansan men under the age of 44.

The company spent over USD$400,000 on more than 16 million advertisements. It’s one of Facebook’s largest political advertisers, and had it not been for some great journalism by The Atlantic, they would have been unknown to the public.

If you are lean-left politically, this bypass of Facebook’s regulations might seem like a non-issue. However, The NY Times put out an article today that examines the issue from the other end of the spectrum. In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, an identified person is purchasing Facebook ads that portray Dem. Candidate Jennifer Wexton as a Nazi.

Although Facebook requires that its advertisers fill out a form disclosing the identity of the purchaser, the advertiser doesn’t technically have to write down their real information. Thus, the “free loving American Citizen expressing my natural right” can simply advertise themselves as such.

None of this is technically illegal, as the Supreme Court ruled in favour of corporations dumping their ‘black money’ into election advertising. This phenomenon cannot be combatted by Facebook’s tech security team alone.

Although Facebook does require all sponsors to release their government ID for ‘verification’, Facebook does not actually share any information about the company that purchased that ad in the first place (except the name). Since LLCs are nontransparent, there is no tech configuration to find out whose pushing any specific political agenda.

Even though Fletcher insists his funding comes from Americans, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a situation where it isn’t. Chinese, Russian, or European investors could easily launder their funds through an American starting an LLC. And if there were collections of purchases under different LLCs, it might be difficult to link the different purchases together.