In the 2016 Presidential election, campaigning on social media proved to be pivotal in attracting and energizing supporters. However, after recent revelations by Facebook, it has also shown to be an effective tool for Russian agents – some possibly working on behalf of the Kremlin – to sow discord amongst American citizens and encourage their disillusionment with government. According to election law and finance expert Rick Hasen, laws generally prohibit foreign governments from sponsoring political ads in the United States but ambiguity exists around how this applies to content on social media.
CB Polling conducted a national Google Consumer Survey of 1004 individuals from October 13th to October 15th, 2017 to gauge the public opinion of social media platforms accepting foreign payments for running political ads during elections. Among those 1004 surveyed, 473 of which declared their views on the matter. The sentiment on was overwhelmingly negative among those who offered their opinion with 82% of respondents saying they are against allowing foreign payments to fund political ads on platforms like Facebook during US elections. 18% indicated their support for allowing these types of ads.
Its important to note that most of these social media ads do not endorse any candidate in particular. However, as a September Politico report showed, some ads did endorse Republican nominee Donald Trump, Green Party nominee Jill Stein, and Democrat Bernie Sanders. At least one of these ads centered around the Black Lives Matter movement, while another involved a group impersonating a Muslim organization pushing fake stories about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. While it is illegal for foreign individuals to contribute financially to a political campaign, its not clear if Facebook can be held liable for allowing foreign entities to purchase such ads on their platform. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) are drafting new legislation that would make it mandatory for tech companies like Facebook and Twitter to “make reasonable efforts to ensure that electioneering communications are not purchased by a foreign national, directly or indirectly. ”
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in an interview with Axios that the company would have allowed political ads purchased in Russia to run if the buyers were real people. Sandberg cited the free expression of political speech and protecting the ability of individuals to say controversial things as reasons for allowing those ads on Facebook. However, while usually strong proponents of the First Amendment, 77% of Republicans who stated an opinion disagreed. This opposition has been consistent across party affiliations, with 82% of Democrats and 88% of Independents who stated their opinion indicating they are against letting foreign interests run political ads during elections.
Research by ProPublica showed how easy it is to target the news feeds of people with certain interests including “Jew hater”, “How to burn jews”, or “History of ‘why jews ruin the world’”. Pro Publica paid $30 to target these groups with “promoted posts” and all three ads were approved by Facebook within 15 minutes. The three ads produced by ProPublica reached around 6000 people generating 101 clicks and 13 engagements. Unlike traditional media outlets, tech companies like Facebook have taken a hands-off approach to its advertising business. Facebook now intends to hire 1000 additional people to approve ads on their platform and they will review political and race targeting ads by hand. They have indicated an intention to overhaul their advertising system before the 2018 midterm elections.
Link to the accompanying press release here