On Sept. 6, Facebook admitted to selling advertisement space to secret Russian propaganda groups. This follows news of Russian interference in the 2016 election, which an investigation by the U.S. intelligence community concluded helped sway results in President Donald Trump’s favor. Due to the admission, Facebook now joins the ongoing investigation into Russia’s influence during the 2016 election by selling $100,000 in ad space to Kremlin-affiliated groups.
The chief security officer of Facebook, Alex Stamos, noted in a blog posts that advertisements totaled to 3,000 and were linked to 470 fraudulent, Russia-affiliated accounts.
While some ads mentioned 2016 presidential candidates directly, many focused on hot-topics such as gun legislation and immigration. In the grand scheme of a presidential campaign, 3,000 advertisements seem minuscule. However, targeted advertising tools on Facebook could allow for a small amount of advertisements to have a large impact.
Facebook allows users to target ideal consumers on their platform. Russian affiliated Facebook pages purchased ads and strategically placed them to make a maximum impact. Stamos’ post revealed most advertisements were geographically targeted. Given that the polarizing political beliefs in America are largely based on geography, this tactic is highly effective.
The channel through which advertisements were disseminated held a sizable influence over millennials, who account for 69.2 percent of the current voting population. A study by the Pew Research Center noted 61 percent of millennials receive their political news via Facebook.
Junior Sarah Whitcomb said, “A lot of my friends on Facebook are politically active, so what’s shared becomes an eco-chamber. When I’m scrolling through looking at pictures it becomes the most accessible way to look at news articles.”
The content on social media websites must have safeguards to ensure accuracy, as it is being consumed by individuals of voting age.
However, it must also be noted that not all information on social media is accurate. This has spurred much debate surrounding fake news throughout the 2016 election and into present day. Senior Levi Jacobson said, “It’s important to supplement (news) as well because what you’re receiving on social media may be opinionated or may be one-sided, so being able to go to a news source that is balanced and can see both sides is important.”
Social media platforms must be mindful of the large volumes of individuals they influence, and thus their duty to ensure accurate, balanced information on all sites.
In response to criticism regarding their role in allowing Kremlin-affiliated advertisements on the site, Facebook outlined new regulations for pages buying ads. New regulations will increase transparency, strengthen review of political advertisements, and broaden partnerships with election oversight committees. Zuckerberg stated that while Facebook will take measures to prevent interference from third parties and nation-states in elections, it will be impossible to prevent all undesirable content on their site’s feeds, and doing so would hinder freedom of speech.
Zuckerberg’s response comes at the same time when Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, released a statement that Facebook would no longer allow ad targeting based on discriminatory phrases. This statement follows ProPublica’s discovery of hateful ads on the site. Buyers used the targeting tool to search for discriminatory phrases in user’s bios, and disseminate advertisements directly to those users.
Facebook will now strengthen human review of advertisements, broaden community standards, and place a tool that allows users to report advertisements. Combined with regulations in response to Kremlin-affiliated ads, Facebook will be overhauling advertising protocol.
In both cases, Facebook showed severe delay in recognizing advertising violations and misconduct on their site. Kremlin-affiliated advertisements occurred back in 2016, and Facebook only recognized discriminatory ads after ProPublica brought the situation to light. As social media advertising becomes an increasingly popular way of spreading messages, the government and social networking sites must stay up-to-date on policies. Facebook gains 95 percent of its revenue from advertisements. This proves that companies are utilizing the social media advertising trend. Facebook failing to thoroughly update advertising policies until recently, when the advertising feature launched in 2004, proves their negligence to understand the new trends and possible abuse of the power advertising on their site could bring.
In light of Facebook’s oversights, Democrats are calling for the Federal Election Commission to revise standards for source disclosure in advertisements, so audiences have reliable information to evaluate political ads. Facebook has stated they intend to improve advertisement source transparency. However, the FEC must also take action to increase transparency around the issue of foreign election influence that has plagued America for months.
President Donald Trump has continuously neglected to legitimize Russian influence in the 2016 election. This not only is ignorant, but also places America in a dangerous situation. Sophomore Alec Deske said, “Trump doesn’t do enough in any situation that he’s presented with since he’s become President. Facebook has become a large social media platform that millennials and our parents use, it’s a bigger deal to a lot more people, and if he doesn’t do anything it will be another situation where it shows Trump doesn’t care and places America in a vulnerable situation and open for attack.”
Trump addressed the Kremlin-linked advertisements in a tweet stating, “The Russia hoax continues, now it’s ads on Facebook.”
Trump’s false claim proves the importance of third parties like Facebook and government agencies such as the FEC to regulate advertisements. Countless organizations have solid proof that Russian involvement is a real threat, not a hoax. If the President will not address the threat of foreign influence in the election, others must rise to meet the challenge.