IPA remains unconvinced by Facebook's political advertising 'opt-out'

Trade body concerned that unchecked political ads through platform's micro-targeting tools enable misinformation to spread.

Facebook Ad Library: enables users to see all political campaigns booked on platform
Facebook Ad Library: enables users to see all political campaigns booked on platform

The IPA has expressed concerns about Facebook’s continued resistance to ban micro-targeted political ads on its platform, after founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that US users would have an "opt-out" ahead of this year’s presidential election.

In a column for USA Today, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would launch a voter registration drive to help get four million Americans to vote in the upcoming election. Zuckerberg also slipped in an announcement that, from today (17 June), US users would be able to turn off political ads altogether.

A spokesman for Facebook confirmed to Campaign that this new "opt-out" feature is an extension of a policy it had already announced in January to enable users to see fewer political ads by changing their ad preferences.

The opt-out will roll out in the autumn to other countries, including the UK, where Facebook has a political ads disclaimer, the spokesman added.

The IPA, which criticised Facebook for stopping short of banning political ads, has done so again in response to Zuckerberg’s latest announcement. The trade body is concerned that this move does not address concerns that unchecked political advertising through Facebook’s micro-targeting tools enable misinformation to spread and for unproven claims to be amplified.

Nigel Gwilliam, director of media affairs at the IPA, said: "We have reservations about a programme that is largely predicated on a conscious action to opt out – especially in reaction to political ad messages that can effectively say almost anything in the absence of regulation or fact-checking. 

"How will different cohorts react to this? Does political affiliation and/or education, literacy level, age, gender etc affect opt-out levels? Could this programme inadvertently favour one side or promote polarisation? Further, could opt-out be weaponised? You could target cohorts affiliated to your opposition intended to aggravate them to inadvertently turn all political ads off. This may sound far-fetched, but unforeseen consequences from online political advertising are not unprecedented."

Unlike brand advertising, political ads can say whatever they like in the UK and can be served in a largely opaque manner, Gwilliam added. The IPA is renewing its calls for a publicly accessible, platform-neutral, machine-readable register of all political ads and ad data online, as well as a ban on micro-targeted political advertising. The organisation launched a campaign against micro-targeting in 2018.

Zuckerberg appears to be implacable in his stance over retaining political advertising on Facebook, despite other tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Snapchat banning it in the past year. He has repeatedly claimed that private companies such as Facebook should not be "censoring" politicians by removing their posts or allowing them to buy political ads.

However, writing in The Daily Telegraph today, Facebook's head of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, said Facebook has "changed" since 2016, when the platform was targeted by Russian interference to help sway the election for US president Donald Trump.

Clegg wrote: "As a company, it has looked hard at what went wrong with Russian interference in the 2016 elections and made some big changes. There are now three times as many people working on safety and security issues – more than 35,000 in total – and we work closely with government and law enforcement.

"Facebook has helped fight interference in more than 200 elections since 2017 and reduced fake news on its platform – by more than 50%, according to independent studies. Facebook also prevents millions of fake accounts from being created every day and takes down co-ordinated networks of malicious accounts."

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