There’s nothing like a spotlight shining from Capitol Hill to make corporations take an issue seriously: ask MLB and the use of PEDs in baseball.
Facebook and Twitter have been twisting in the breeze recently over revelations that Russia-related troll accounts had been investing deeply in political and issues-based social advertising in the run up to the 2016 Presidential election. Sharing 3,000 contentious ads with Congressional investigators, Mark Zuckerberg reversed his former “pretty crazy idea” stance on Facebook’s election influence, and said: “This manipulation runs counter to Facebook’s mission of building community and everything we stand for.”
It also threatens the bottom line. Brands — most, anyway — like to engage their audiences in safe spaces, and not where their ads will be packaged alongside terrorist videos, pornography, and messaging from the Kremlin. What’s more, Facebook especially — but Twitter too — claim robust adtech capabilities, which contrast poorly with claims that tracking controversial ads and accounts is just too difficult.
And so we have signs that the platforms are taking the issue seriously. Facebook, not atypically, announced a complex set of measures:
- They’ll show you, in your feed, not only which account is running the ad you’re seeing, but what other ads they’re running, including ads not targeted at you
- They’re boosting (over the next year) the numbers of human eyes reviewing ads, as well as leveraging machine learning: automating the review process seems a great idea, but of course there’s a risk of legitimate ads being rejected
- They’ll policy guidelines on appropriate ad content, and develop standards on what count as polarizing issues
- And they’ll seek fuller documentation from accounts which plan to run political ads.
Twitter, conversely, is taking a more centralized approach, announcing an Advertising Transparency Center (coming in weeks, not months), where users will be able to discover all ads currently running on the platform, ads targeted at users, as well as personalized information on which ads users “are eligible to receive based on targeting.” See something you don’t like? Report it. What happens then? Inappropriate ads, Twitter says, will be more swiftly removed, and you will see more relevant ads in your feed.
At first glance, Facebook’s initiative seems more pro-active; Twitter’s more a way of streamlining capabilities which already exist. Still, some industry watchers have positive words to say. On Twitter, Jason Beckerman, CEO of marketing platform Unified, said: “This is a great move by Twitter — because they control all of their inventory inside of their audience based platform, they can build unique features that build trust among their community and the world at large. Companies taking steps like this to self-police will create greater trust and limit blow back when situations like the 2016 election issues arise.”
Of course, it’s the outcome of these strategies which will be important — and which will be hard to assess, in the U.S. anyway, until the next nationwide election next year. In Facebook’s case, at least it shows a vestigial willingness to act like the publisher it is, and not the neutral information channel it sometimes purports to be.