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Politics

Facebook and Twitter have new rules for political ads. Here's how they work

Now you'll see who paid for an ad, how much they paid and how many people saw it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg standing in front of a screen that says "Fighting Fake News.

Mark Zuckerberg has said his mission this year is to fix Facebook.

James Martin/CNET

How do you solve a problem like Russian propagandists? How do you keep them from meddling in elections?

Well, at Facebook and Twitter, the answer is more transparency about political ads.

Starting Thursday, both companies said, they're following through on  promises from late last year to add verification, disclosures and additional information to all political ads.

The way it'll work is that when you come across a political ad on Twitter, you'll see "Promoted (political)" on the bottom and whether the ad was authorized by a candidate. 

An example of a political ad on Facebook with a tag indicating who paid for it.

Facebook

On Facebook, there'll be a "Paid for by" disclosure at its top. Additionally, if you click on the label, you'll be taken to a page where you can learn how much money was spent and how many people saw the ad, as well as a breakdown of their age, gender and location.

While Twitter will include a "learn more" button so people can identify and contact the ad buyer, Facebook is going a step further by making its data publicly accessible at facebook.com/politicalcontentads for seven years from the day an ad runs.

"This is a tool that makes it easier for you to find problems and it's something that we want to invite you to report as well so we get better faster," said Rob Leathern, director of product management at Facebook, in a conference call with journalists Thursday.

Twitter's version of this, called the Ads Transparency Center, won't arrive for a few months yet, the company said.

To many, the new policy couldn't have come quickly enough. Facebook in particular has been under increasing scrutiny following scandals over Russian propagandists and a data leak that exposed up to 87 million users' profile information to a UK-based political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica. Together, they've pushed Facebook, and its 34-year old wunderkind co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, to go before lawmakers, investors, advertisers, developers and even us users to apologize for failing to properly manage one of the world's largest websites.

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Now Facebook is playing catchup. It's set new privacy policies and data protection rules and instituted audits to prevent app developers from improperly leaking user information again. And now it's making good on its promise to begin tackling the specter of more disinformation campaigns during the upcoming midterm elections in the US.

But, as Facebook is quick to point out, these moves are just the latest in a series of efforts to strengthen its service against  further abuse. It's not a guarantee this all won't happen again.

"As long as there are people sitting in Russia whose job it is to interfere with elections around the world, this is going to be an ongoing conflict," Zuckerberg said when speaking to Congress last month. "This is an ongoing arms race."

Doing something, at least

It didn't take much for the Russian propagandists to make a splash on Facebook. Last year, the company said it found $100,000 worth of ads purchased from Russian-linked accounts. That bought 3,000 ads seen by 10 million Facebook users. When Zuckerberg disclosed the ads, he vowed to work for more "election integrity."

Facebook has since partnered with researchers to establish an "independent election research commission" that Zuckerberg said "will solicit research on the effects of social media on elections and democracy." The group is also helping to analyze political advertising on Facebook and to make it more easily accessible to others for their own research.

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A mockup of what political ad will look like on Twitter.

Twitter

Facebook isn't alone in tackling the issue of political ads. There's Twitter, too, and Google likewise is instituting new rules around political ads. Facebook and Twitter have also expressed support for the Honest Ads Act, a bill moving through Congress that would require political ads on the internet to have similar transparency as those on radio and television by, for example, identifying who paid for them.

To help make sure no one tries to run political ads outside Facebook's rules, the company is turning to its artificial intelligence technology. These AI programs are trained to help identify which ads might be trying to circumvent Facebook's rules. 

Users themselves can also flag questionable ads, which will then be reviewed by the company. Facebook says that by adding a second reviewing step for reported ads, and offering copies of them in the ads archive, that will protect against people reporting an ad in bad faith.

"Part of how we're going to be held accountable and how we're going to involve folks is by providing the archive, which will show you all the different ads we have," Leathern said. "We believe we have very good coverage in place."

Twitter struck a similar tone in its announcement that it plans to continue improving the way it handles political ads over time. 

"We believe transparency is key for both the people using our service and advertisers to feel confident in our platform," the company said in a blog post Thursday. "This is just the beginning of our efforts in increased transparency for all advertising on Twitter."

First published May 24 at 11:00 a.m. PT.
Update at 11:24 a.m. PT: Adds details about Twitter's political ads transparency program.

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