This is not a great look heading into the US mid terms.
According to a new report from VICE, Facebook's recently launched political ad transparency measures, which enable users to see who, exactly, has paid for any political ad on the platform, can be easily misused to falsely represent such data.
Facebook rolled out its political ad transparency tools last October, then expanded them to 'issues' based ads in April. As you can see in the example below, the option enables users to learn more about the funding behind political ads by clicking on an information icon within the main image.
The problem, VICE found, is that there's no barrier to who can buy political ads, and who they can report funded them.
As explained by VICE:
"VICE News applied to buy fake ads on behalf of all 100 sitting U.S. senators, including ads “Paid for by” by Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Facebook’s approvals were bipartisan: All 100 sailed through the system, indicating that just about anyone can buy an ad identified as “Paid for by” by a major U.S. politician."
In addition to this, VICE was also approved to run political ads from clearly fake political groups, like “Cookies for Political Transparency” and “Ninja Turtles PAC.” VICE didn't actually run these ads - the ads were approved and ready to go, but VICE didn't make them live. Facebook has also noted that these issues should have likely been captured in the process. But they weren't, which somewhat undermines the value of the tool.
Of course, stamping out political interference is always going to be difficult, there are always going to be groups that will find loopholes and options which they can exploit to advantage. But Facebook's been pushing hard to promote its political transparency efforts, in order to counter the narrative that the platform has become a negative societal element, a home for fostering division.
The fact that they can be so easily misused doesn't provide much assurance that they'll be able to do better against far more sophisticated foreign hackers.
Can Facebook be used to manipulate voters? That's almost beyond question at this stage - with more than 2.2 billion active users, and 86% of social media users now checking their social apps daily, the reach potential is unmatched. In addition to this, Facebook itself has run experiments to show how its platform can be used to encourage people to participate in elections - and this is before you consider the spread of misinformation and its capacity to fuel tribalism based around (true or untrue) beliefs.
Facebook can influencer voter behavior. The full extent to which it's able to do so is difficult to ascertain, but the evidence shows it can absolutely shift political movements.
Facebook would have been hoping to come out of the mid terms with a clean slate, with a new way to showcase how its platform was not misused by political groups. But this new investigation shows that it still has a way to go to secure its platform from misuse.