Senators demand Zuckerberg fix Facebook's ad transparency tool

It's "unacceptable" that the new tool isn't properly checking people's identity and is thus subject to abuse, they tell Facebook's CEO in a letter.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
2 min read

Cardboard cutouts of Mark Zuckerberg from when the Facebook CEO testified to Congress.

Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images

Two senators have sent an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, demanding that he fix Facebook's ads transparency tool.

In May, Facebook implemented new rules for political ads, requiring buyers to verify their identification and addresses, and that the ads would have to show who paid for them. The changes echoed what Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota had pushed for in the Honest Ads Act

But the senators are circling back on the issue following stories from multiple news outlets that reportedly show how easily the new tool could be abused.

A Vice News story reportedly shows how Facebook isn't always properly checking ad buyers' identities. The news outlet posed as 100 senators to pay for ads and Facebook approved every single one of them, Vice News said. Business Insider did a similar experiment, posing as Cambridge Analytica, and Facebook approved both of those ads.

"The fact that Facebook's new security tools allow users to intentionally misidentify who placed political ads is unacceptable," Warner and Klobuchar wrote in the letter. "That Facebook is unable to recognize ads connected to a well-established foreign interference operation is also deeply troubling."

The letter also noted that Facebook's "central vulnerability" is that it's failing to use human reviewers to prevent this type of fraud.

Facebook said it's addressing the abuse issue, as a supporter of the Honest Ads Act. Rob Leathern, Facebook's director of Product Management, said the inaccurate "paid for by" labels violate the social network's policies, and it actively looks to remove them.

"We're exploring additional checks to help prevent abuse and will respond to requests from law enforcement and election officials now and in the future if new requirements arise," Leathern said in a statement.

Facebook has been facing more pressure from Capitol Hill as it attempts to stamp out disinformation on the social network. Last Friday, Facebook announced that it removed 82 accounts tied to Iran's influence campaign on US politics.

The Iranian campaign was able to purchase ads on Facebook and Instagram in 2018, despite Facebook's new political ads policy. In another indictment, court documents showed that Russian trolls were budgeting up to $60,000 for advertisements on Facebook in 2018. It's unclear how many Russian-backed political ads were approved by Facebook.

Klobuchar and Warner also wrote in the letter that Facebook is "failing to carry out the basic disclosure and disclaimer provisions" of the Honest Ads Act. The bill has not passed, so social media companies are only voluntarily adhering to the act's standards at the moment. 

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