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Unveiling Facebook's Political Ad Policy Enforcement: USENIX Security '22

Published on: November 17 2023 by USENIX

Unveiling Facebook's Political Ad Policy Enforcement: USENIX Security '22

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Power and Risks of Online Political Advertising
  3. Scrutiny and Regulation of Online Political Advertising
  4. Self-Regulatory Models for Political Ads
  5. Facebook's Political Ad Policy
  6. False Positives: Ads Incorrectly Labeled as Political
  7. False Negatives: Ads Not Declared or Detected as Political
  8. Flaws in Facebook's Enforcement Strategies
  9. Limitations and Recommendations for Improvement
  10. Achieving Better Security and Accountability in Online Political Advertising

Introduction

Online political advertising has become increasingly prevalent, particularly during major elections. This article explores the power and risks of online political advertising, and the scrutiny and regulation it has faced in recent years. We also delve into self-regulatory models and Facebook's political ad policy, analyzing the effectiveness of their enforcement strategies. In doing so, we highlight the flaws and limitations that exist within the current system and offer recommendations for improvement. Ultimately, our goal is to achieve better security and accountability to ensure the integrity of online political speech and advertising.


The Power and Risks of Online Political Advertising

Online political advertising has emerged as a powerful tool within the democratic process. In the 2020 U.S elections alone, over one billion dollars were spent on Facebook for online political advertising. This form of advertising can significantly increase engagement and reach among voters, offering political candidates a platform to convey their message effectively. However, with great power comes a risk of abuse.

The scrutiny surrounding online political advertising began with the 2016 U.S election and the Brexit referendum. Evidence of foreign interference and manipulation led to concerns over the spread of misinformation and attempts to dissuade eligible voters from participating in the electoral process. Additionally, there were instances of inauthentic behavior and misrepresentation of identities, further fueling the need for stricter regulations.

Scrutiny and Regulation of Online Political Advertising

Legislation pertaining to online political advertising has lagged behind the rapid growth of this medium. As a result, oversight and regulation primarily rely on the major advertising platforms themselves, such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook (now known as Meta). These platforms have developed their own policies for dealing with political ads, employing a self-regulatory model.

Among these platforms, Facebook is widely regarded as having one of the most extensive and comprehensive political ad policies. Its policy revolves around ads related to social issues, elections, and politics. This policy includes requirements for advertisers to indicate that an ad is paid for and disclose who paid for it. Advertisers must also self-declare that their ad falls within the scope of the policy.

Facebook's Political Ad Policy

Facebook's enforcement of its political ad policy is a critical aspect of ensuring the integrity of online political advertising. The platform employs various measures to detect and moderate political ads that don't comply with its policies. When an ad is found to have been incorrectly declared or falls within the scope of the policy but lacks proper disclosure, Facebook takes action to rectify the situation.

One of the key enforcement strategies is the retrospective identification of non-compliant ads. Ads that were not properly declared by the advertiser but are determined to be political are actively identified, taken down, and labeled as ads without disclaimers. These ads are also added to the publicly available archive of political ads. The archive includes all active ads from pages that have published at least one political ad within a defined measurement period.

False Positives: Ads Incorrectly Labeled as Political

In our audit of Facebook's political ad enforcement, we focused on a subset of ads that were not properly declared by advertisers but were deemed to be political. Our analysis included manual annotation of ads to determine if they fell within the scope of Facebook's policy. We found that approximately 55% of the ads detected as political were incorrectly labeled. Extrapolating this proportion to the entire dataset, we estimated that around 40,000 ads were falsely identified as political.

These false positives encompassed a range of ads that were unrelated to politics, including purely commercial advertisements and public health messages. The misclassification of these non-political ads resulted in their removal from the platform, potentially hindering beneficial campaigns and hindering access to essential information.

False Negatives: Ads Not Declared or Detected as Political

On the flip side, our analysis also uncovered a significant number of ads that were not declared by advertisers and went undetected by Facebook's enforcement system. These ads were genuinely political in nature and should have been subject to scrutiny and enforcement. Through external lists of known political Facebook pages and categorization of each page, we identified nearly 117,000 ads from clear political actors that flew under the radar.

These false negatives included ads from major political parties and candidates, typically featuring a distinct political message. Despite the clear political intent behind these ads, Facebook's enforcement failed to detect them, undermining the platform's integrity and potentially exposing users to malicious or deceptive content.

Flaws in Facebook's Enforcement Strategies

The results of our audit highlight significant flaws in Facebook's enforcement of its political ad policy. The classification metrics indicate a low F1 score of 0.29, demonstrating a high rate of incorrect ad classification. Half of the detected ads should not have been flagged, leading to a decrease in ad availability on the platform. Moreover, Facebook miss as many ads as it detects, further compromising the integrity of the advertising ecosystem.

Several limitations contribute to these flaws. Facebook primarily relies on automated solutions to detect violating ads, but these solutions often overlook clear signals of political intent. Complementing automated reviews with enforceable rules would strengthen the accuracy of ad classification. Additionally, there appears to be a lack of consistent consequences for advertisers who violate the political ad policy. Prohibiting future ad runs or taking down pages is among the potential measures Facebook could adopt to address this issue.

Limitations and Recommendations for Improvement

The flaws in Facebook's enforcement strategies indicate a need for improvement. Several limitations hinder the platform's ability to effectively regulate political ads. Inconsistencies in performance across different global regions, lack of clarity in policies, and the complexity of the policy itself contribute to the challenges faced by advertisers and Facebook's enforcement team.

To address these limitations, we recommend that Facebook:

  1. Utilize automated solutions that learn obvious signals of political intent and complement them with enforceable rules.
  2. Implement consistent consequences for advertisers who violate the political ad policy, such as future ad prohibitions or page takedowns.
  3. Adapt policies and systems to local contexts, ensuring robust enforcement globally.
  4. Clarify and simplify policy guidelines to facilitate compliance by advertisers and enhance enforcement efficiency.
  5. Improve transparency by archiving all political ads and making related metadata publicly available for auditing purposes.

Achieving Better Security and Accountability in Online Political Advertising

Greater transparency and accountability are crucial for maintaining the security of online political advertising. By enabling audits through comprehensive data transparency, we empower researchers, journalists, and non-profit organizations to hold advertisers accountable for their actions. This transparency also incentivizes advertisers to comply with policies while motivating Facebook to continuously improve its enforcement strategies.

The ultimate goal is to strike a balance where the benefits of online political advertising outweigh the associated risks and vulnerabilities. By optimizing transparency, security, and accountability, we can safeguard the integrity of online political speech and advertising, fostering a democratic process that relies on informed and engaged citizens.

For more information on this topic and our research, please refer to the provided contact details and access our paper through the link provided.


Highlights:

  • Online political advertising has become a powerful tool within the democratic process.
  • Scrutiny and regulation of online political advertising have increased in recent years.
  • Facebook utilizes a self-regulatory model for political ad policies.
  • Facebook's enforcement strategies have flaws, resulting in false positives and false negatives.
  • Recommendations for improvement include using automated solutions, implementing consistent consequences, and improving policy clarity.
  • Achieving better security and accountability requires transparency and the archiving of all political ads.

FAQ:

Q: What is online political advertising? A: Online political advertising refers to the use of digital platforms, such as social media, to promote political candidates, parties, or issues.

Q: How much was spent on online political advertising during the 2020 U.S elections? A: Over one billion dollars was spent on Facebook alone for online political advertising during the 2020 U.S elections.

Q: What are the risks of online political advertising? A: The risks of online political advertising include the spread of misinformation, attempts to dissuade people from voting, inauthentic behavior, and misrepresentation of identities.

Q: How is online political advertising regulated? A: Legislation regarding online political advertising is still catching up. Major advertising platforms, such as Facebook, have developed their own self-regulatory models for political ads.

Q: What are false positives and false negatives in Facebook's enforcement of political ad policies? A: False positives are ads that were incorrectly labeled as political by Facebook but were not actually political in nature. False negatives are ads that were not declared as political by advertisers and were not detected by Facebook's enforcement system, despite being political.

Q: How can Facebook improve its enforcement strategies for political ads? A: Facebook can improve its enforcement strategies by utilizing automated solutions that learn political intent, implementing consistent consequences for violators, adapting policies to local contexts, clarifying and simplifying policies, and improving transparency by archiving all political ads.

Q: What is the ultimate goal of better security and accountability in online political advertising? A: The ultimate goal is to strike a balance where the benefits of online political advertising outweigh the risks and vulnerabilities, ensuring the integrity of online political speech and fostering an informed and engaged democratic process.

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