Virginia Senator to Facebook: ‘Americans have a right to know who is behind political ads’

The letter comes after an investigation exposed issues with the company’s ad transparency

Senator to Facebook: 'Americans have a right to know who is behind political ads'

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A Virginia Senator is calling out Facebook just days after a story from Raycom Media’s Investigate TV exposing problems with Facebook’s political ad transparency.

On Thursday, NBC12 aired a story that showed serious issues with Facebook’s political ad transparency tool.

Investigate TV and Pro Publica found ads “paid for by you” instead of the campaigns. The report showed secret groups spending millions in misleading ads with no accountability.

Now the co-authors of the Honest Ads Act, which would increase political ad transparency, are speaking out.

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and Mark Warner (D-VA) wrote: “Americans have a right to know who is behind political ads that are designed to influence our democracy, and platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to ensure that the ads they sell have accurate disclaimers about who paid for them.”

They cite, not only reporting by our partners at ProPublica on how corporations have been able to hide ad sponsorships, but also how a Vice reporter was able to lie about who paid for ads it bought on Facebook.

The letter goes on to say, “it is increasingly clear that major gaps exist in Facebook’s efforts, potentially allowing adversaries to exploit your platform with continued disinformation efforts.”

The Honest Ads Act was introduced a year ago. Since then, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has testified before Congress and announced some changes to the way the company handles political advertising.

But Sens. Klobuchar and Warner now say those actions don’t go far enough.

FULL LETTER:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

Reports indicate that Facebook’s new security tools allow users to intentionally misidentify who purchases political ads on your platform. We write to express concern about significant apparent loopholes in Facebook’s ads transparency tool and to urge you to promptly address this issue.

Americans have a right to know who is behind political ads that are designed to influence our democracy, and platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to ensure that the ads they sell have accurate disclaimers about who paid for them. In multiple appearances before Congress this year, you acknowledged that in the past Facebook did not take a broad enough view of its responsibility and that failure to do so was a mistake. You specifically said, “Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure that they're used for good.”

We appreciate the work that Facebook has done to implement the Honest Ads Act, our legislation to create transparency and accountability measures for paid online political ads. However, it is increasingly clear that major gaps exist in Facebook’s efforts, potentially allowing adversaries to exploit your platform with continued disinformation efforts.

A number of recent news articles demonstrate the shortfalls in your company’s existing systems. The New York Times pointed to the shortcomings of Facebook’s political disclosure regime on October 17th, reporting that a Congressional candidate was being targeted with anonymous attack ads. In contrast to the terms of the Honest Ads Act, which requires disclosure of information related to the real party in interest associated with a political advertisement, these ads included a disclaimer that read: “Paid for by a freedom loving American Citizen exercising my natural law right, protected by the 1st Amendment and protected by the 2nd amendment.” Subsequently, on October 26th, Vice News published an article titled “Facebook’s Ad Tool Lets Us Buy Ads “Paid For” By Mike Pence and ISIS”. The report details that while Facebook’s ad tool initially required the reporters to verify their identities and addresses before purchasing ads, it subsequently allowed them to place inaccurate disclosures on the ads – falsely attributing the ad to 3rd parties. Additionally, VICE News employees were able to post verbatim replica copies of ads that have now been identified to be part of a widespread disinformation campaign on the part of Russian government agents during the 2016 election cycle.

On October 30th, Vice News released a second report describing how its employees applied to purchase ads on behalf of each United States Senator, including ads “paid for by” all of the signatories of this letter. Facebook approved the ads despite the fact that they were both fraudulent and in violation of the company’s overall terms of service.

The fact Facebook’s new security tools allow users to intentionally misidentify who placed political ads is unacceptable. That Facebook is unable to recognize ads connected to a well-established foreign interference operation is also deeply troubling. Both point to a central vulnerability that enable these kinds of ads: Facebook’s failure to utilize human reviewers of the political ads it sells.

Free and fair elections require both transparency and accountability which give the public a right to know the true sources of funding for political advertisements in order to make informed political choices and hold elected officials accountable. However, it is clear that there are significant loopholes with regard to how Facebook sells ads and the process by which disclaimers are applied to political ads. You have committed to implementing transparency measures similar to those that the Honest Ads Act would require; however, your company is currently failing to carry out the basic disclosure and disclaimer provisions of the legislation.

We strongly urge you to take every step necessary to close these loopholes in the transparency tool. We appreciate your prompt attention and look forward to continuing to work with you to promote more transparent political advertising.

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