Facebook shouldn’t bow to publishers on its ad transparency rules
Given that digital publishers have spent a lot of time over the years complaining that the Facebook and Google duopoly has been siphoning away advertising dollars from the news industry, the average consumer might be surprised to learn that it’s actually quite common for these publishers to purchase their own Facebook ads.
In many cases, publishers are merely paying to boost their content with the hope that this will lead to organic shares on the platform. Publishers with robust native advertising operations will often include a Facebook ad spend so the sponsored content is exposed to more users. And publishers with paid subscription business models purchase ads targeted at their already-existing Facebook followers with the hope of converting them into paying members.
It’s within this context that publishers have been issuing vociferous protests against some recent changes Facebook has made to its advertising policies — changes that will create more transparency around ads that contain political content.
Some background: Mark Zuckerberg and other executives were forced to admit last year that Russian operatives had managed to purchase $100,000 in Facebook ads aimed at influencing the 2016 election. After vowing to do more to curb this type of abuse, Facebook’s announced a series of changes this year that affect who’s allowed to purchase political ads and how those ads are displayed in the feed.
In order to run any ad that relates to 20 political issues — things like abortion, civil rights, and immigration — an organization must first receive a special form of verification that requires the organization’s employees to submit government-issued IDs and a notarized form. Once approved, the organization’s political ads will then be added to a publicly-searchable database that displays the size of the ad spend and the demographic information used in their targeting.
Why are publishers up in arms? Because any promoted posts that contain content relating to those 20 political issues fall under these new ad guidelines. That means if The New York Times wants to buy a promoted post to boost an article about abortion rights activists, it must submit to verification, and its ad would carry the same disclaimer that would be found on an ad for, say, Planned Parenthood. “We object to any grouping of quality news publishers with political advocacy organizations and propagandists, and believe it would impede our ability to serve our journalistic mission,” said a spokesperson from New York Media, which paused all its advertising on Facebook. “We hope that Facebook will find an appropriate solution for quality news publishers.”
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The protests didn’t start or end there. The News Media Alliance, an industry publication that represents over 2,000 news orgs, issued statements denouncing the rules. New York Times CEO Thompson has been particularly irate, declaring the rules a “threat to democracy.” Even after Facebook capitulated somewhat and changed the disclosure wording from “political ad” to “paid for by [Organization],” publishers held firm.
And what’s their proposed solution? The New Media Alliance issued a proposal that Facebook develop a “white list” of publishers who are exempt from these rules. How can you get on this list? As Bloomberg explained:
Publishers would be eligible to join the list if they have an editorial staff dedicated to producing news coverage on local, national, or international matters on at least a weekly basis. Media organizations that are members of “respected industry associations” such as the American Society of News Editors, the Online News Association and the News Media Alliance would also be eligible.
Thus far, Facebook hasn’t budged on this issue, and I don’t think they should.
If you look at how fake news spread during the 2016 election — not just from Russian accounts, but also teens in Macedonia and even Americans — in many cases, the news was propagated via an outside website that was designed to look like a legitimate media company. The hoaxter would write up a false narrative, publish it to the site, and then place a small Facebook ad buy targeting the article toward conservatives. Once those conservatives started liking and sharing the post, the originator of the fake news could sit back and watch the post go viral.
The fact of the matter is that any advocacy group can pretend to be a publisher and then buy ads against its content. So how do you discern, at scale, between a non-partisan publisher like The New York Times and one that’s been propped up by a Super PAC or political candidate? Requiring that a journalist be a member of an industry association like the News Media Alliance perpetuates the media gatekeeping that the internet has long done away with. There are tens of thousands of digital media outlets, many of which have never belonged to an industry association, and I don’t blame Facebook for not wanting to bestow the kind of decision-making powers to these organizations that would allow them to determine who’s exempted from the rules.
If there’s no scalable way to discern between non-partisan and advocacy publishers, then that means Facebook would need to review publishers on a case-by-case basis, an approach that would be impractical on a network that boasts over 2 billion users.
It would also be incredibly difficult to develop a set of criteria that isn’t subject to charges of bias and favoritism. Take a media organization like ThinkProgress. The site has an editorial budget, employs investigative journalists, and is overseen by an editor in chief. It produces real journalism and has broken major stories. And yet it’s funded, in part, by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that also has a political action arm.
So should Facebook exempt ThinkProgress from its ad transparency rules? What if it joined the Online News Association, one of the supposed arbiters of journalism legitimacy?
Are these really the kinds of questions you want Facebook answering across thousands of news sites, and would such a thing be practical? Not really. And as someone who admires Facebook’s efforts to shed light on political ad spending, I find the media’s freakout over these rules hyperbolic and overblown. When you consider that Facebook has changed the wording so the disclaimer simply states “Paid for by [Organization],” I think the chances that a Facebook user will mistake a news article for a political ad are almost nonexistent.
Publishers have plenty of legitimate gripes with Facebook, and meanwhile, these ad transparency rules will make it much easier for investigative journalists to track political messaging campaigns. If publishers are truly worried about shady political organizations co-opting narratives and the rise of fake news, then they should recognize the net positive effect of these new policies. In a post-Citizens United era where endless supplies of dark money are influencing our elections to a degree never before seen in history, a little more transparency is a good thing.
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