By now, just about everyone is aware of the suspicions surrounding Russia and the 2016 presidential election. For advertisers, that awareness should zero in on the actions of Facebook and other major platforms, and how those sites plan to see through the facades of malicious advertisers.
Facebook Hands Russian Ads Over to Congress
At the beginning of October, Facebook announced its delivery to congressional investigators of ads appearing to come from the Russian Internet Research Agency.
The social media network found more than 3,000 such ads that ran from 2015 to 2017, many of which seem to amplify social and racial divisions on topics ranging from LGBTQ issues to gun laws to immigration. A number of the ads also encouraged viewers to follow pages dedicated to these issues.
About 10 million people saw the ads, which were displayed both before and after the Nov. 8, 2016, election in the United States. About 25 percent of the 3,000 were never displayed (due to low relevance scores), and 5 percent appeared on Instagram.
Fortunately, none of those 3,000 ads used the Custom Audiences targeting that relies on personal information, like email addresses. However, some of the ads used Custom Audience targeting to reach users who’d previously viewed an advertiser’s site, and users similar to that audience.
According to Facebook’s recent announcement (see first link in this section), the Russian ads violated the network’s policy because they originated with inauthentic accounts. In addition, they ran counter to its mission of community building. Facebook also supports exploring and explaining Russian interference with U.S. political systems.
For its own part, Facebook is taking steps to prevent this kind of abuse of the social network while continuing to be a platform for honest discussion. Its recent announcement outlines some of those steps:
- Transparency in advertising, specifically showing the name of any Page running ads in users’ feeds is vital. Going further, Facebook is developing tools that let users see other ads from those Pages, regardless of targeting.
- Strong enforcement against improper ads requires both automated and manual review. These forces will look at ad context as well as content. Facebook is increasing its global ads review teams by 1,000 (as well as investing in machine learning) over the next year.
- Restrictions on advertiser content are tightening. Facebook doesn’t allow ads to be shocking, threatening or promotional of weapons, and is expanding those limits to inhibit more subtle expressions of violence.
- Requirements to prove authenticity are increasing, demanding more thorough documentation from advertisers wanting to run content related to U.S. federal elections. Those advertisers will have to verify the organizations they represent.
- Industry standards and best practices must be established. Facebook is reaching out to industry leaders and global governments for increased sharing of information on bad actors and methods for blocking their activity.
Facebook certainly isn’t alone in this situation. According to reporting from the Washington Post, Google now has evidence that Russian-bought ads used platforms like YouTube, Search, DoubleClick and Gmail to influence the U.S. 2016 election. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent spreading questionable information, and by organizations that appear different from those exploiting Facebook. This suggests the problem is larger than originally thought.
Facebook’s History on Ad Transparency
This isn’t the first time Facebook publicized its actions in the wake of authenticity issues with ads and Pages. In August, it announced that it would not only block ads from Pages habitually sharing so-called “false news” (stories marked false by third-party fact checking organizations), but would also ban those Pages from advertising on Facebook.
Going farther back, in March we discussed Facebook’s strategy for being more accountable to marketers. The four-part plan involved:
- More detailed impression-level data
- Verification through auditing
- Third-party verification of vendors
- Enhanced video buying options
Trusting a Site Doesn’t Mean Trusting its Ads
Most U.S. advertisers can’t do much about Russian ads. Yet, understanding malicious advertising (“malvertising”) and how platforms like Bing and Google fight it can help advertisers avoid being flagged themselves. Supporting anti-malvertising efforts also helps honest advertisers by weeding out unwelcome competition.
Separately, advertisers should understand that consumers are learning something: Just because you trust a website, it doesn’t mean you can trust all the ads on the website. Even sites as mainstream as YouTube are vulnerable to misaligned content and advertising.
Take the example of advertisers upset with Google after their ads appeared next to racially extremist content. While this was the reverse of bad ads showing up alongside quality content, the fact remains that ads and content are not necessarily well-paired, and trust of one should not equal trust of the other.
It will be interesting to see what Congress discovers about the 3,000 ads Facebook handed over, and how Facebook responds in terms of policies and other actions. In the meantime, ensure your ads are in line with Facebook’s expanding guidelines.