At the time, Facebook did not have a special policy on election and political advertising, which contributed to the spreading of ads with non-transparent funding. Georgian state institutions were unprepared for this challenge as well. In fact, no election related state institution had a methodology in place for responding to online political advertising. As a result, to this day, there is no information about which political subjects or interest groups were behind these ads, how much money was spent, what the scope was, and how many voters were affected.
Disinformation based hidden advertising is not the only transparency related problem in the Georgian election system. When submitting declarations to the State Audit Office, election subjects are obligated to provide separate information only for TV ad expenses, while all other types of advertising, including print media, Facebook, or other online platforms, are declared cumulatively. Consequently, there is no information about how much money is spent by election subjects on online platforms, including Facebook - the most widely used social media platform in Georgia.
Non-transparent political advertising is not a challenge that is unique to Georgia. After discovering that an estimated 10 million people saw
Russian sponsored Facebook ads during the US presidential elections1
, other countries and stakeholders have come out urging Facebook to ensure the transparency of political advertising.
Following growing government and public pressure, in September 2017, Mark Zuckerberg announced new initiatives on Facebook that would help ensure the integrity of election processes in the United States and around the world.
On October 2, 2017, Facebook officially published new rules
for political advertising aimed at increasing the transparency of political advertising. VP of Ads Rob Goldman and VP of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan announced
specific steps Facebook plans to take in order to regulate political advertising. According to them, when it comes to advertising on Facebook, people should be able to tell who the advertiser is and see other, especially political ads they’re running. They also stated that this standard of transparency is important for democracy and stability of the electoral process. Transparency helps everyone, especially election observer organizations and journalists, keep advertisers accountable for who they say they are and what they say to different groups.
For this purpose, Facebook is raising the standard of transparency for all ads.
In November 2017, Facebook started testing new rules for placing political ads in Canada. The test involves users being able to click “View Ads” on any Page and view all ads this Page is running on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, whether or not the user is in the intended target audience. Advertisers are required to associate their ads with a Page, so that they are unable to avoid the transparency requirement.
The choice of Canada for this test is most likely due to the upcoming federal elections in 2019. Testing in one market also allows Facebook to learn the various ways an entire population uses the feature.
Initially, Canadian users will only see active ads. However, when this function is expanded to the US, an archive of federal-election related ads will also be created, enabling users to see both current and historical ads.
In addition, the following information will be available for each ad:
- Total amount spent.
- Number of impressions.
- Demographics information (e.g. age, location, gender) about the audience that the ads reached.
According to the new rules, political advertisers on Facebook will be required to verify their identity.
According to Joel Kaplan, Facebook will require more thorough documentation from advertisers. This rule will first apply to federal elections in the US, and will later extend to elections in other countries, depending on their jurisdiction.
The process of submitting the documentation involves the advertiser's obligation to identify that they are running election-related advertising and verify their identity and location.
Once verified, the advertiser will be obligated to specify who the political ad is advertising and who it is paid by. In this way, Facebook users will be able to see details about the advertiser together with an explanation of why they are its target audience.
For political advertisers that do not proactively disclose obligatory information, Facebook will use machine learning tools to find them and require them to disclose their identity.
In order to overcome these threats, Facebook intends to communicate closely with governments to share information on suspicious actors to ensure that they are no longer able to use social platforms if they decide to hide the obligatory information.
In light of the above developments, Georgian state institutions involved in the election process must take these issues into account when preparing for future elections and start communicating with Facebook. In addition, any platform where political ads are placed must be subjected to the same standard of transparency that applies to TV advertising.