Thousands of political ads are sneaking around Facebook’s disclosure rules

The United States election year battle against misinformation on Facebook isn’t off to a good start, at least according to one study.

Researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering discovered that tens of thousands of Facebook pages have found workarounds to the social network’s political advertising disclosure rules. The study was shared with the The Washington Post, which published its findings.

The study looked at Facebook’s online advertising archive between May 2018 and June 2019. The findings “point to myriad opportunities malicious actors may have had to exploit the platform’s powerful targeting tools while hiding their tracks, misleading users and evading Facebook’s enforcement,” according to The Washington Post.

Researchers found that more than 86,000 Facebook pages ran political advertisements that were not properly disclosed in accordance with the company’s policies. Around 20,000 advertisements were also purchased by “likely inauthentic communities,” which the report defines as “clusters of pages that appear to be linked because they promoted the same or similar messages.”

Facebook eventually discovered the political ads and included them in its ad archive.

Big money is being spent on these shady ads, the study found. According to one example, sixteen clusters of Facebook pages had purchased around $3.8 million in political ads.

The study also discovered that some of these ads were from businesses “looking to advance their interests without clear fingerprints.” It found advertisements using political messaging to sell insurance products.

For example, one cluster of 13 Facebook pages was pushing a “questionable insurance product” called “TrumpCare” in order to target supporters of the president. Advertisements like these often did not disclose the connections between the Facebook pages. Some didn’t link to registered businesses, which would run afoul of Facebook’s own rules.

In 2018, Facebook launched a set of new advertising policies in order to increase transparency around the ads. The company created an archive of all political advertising that ran on the platform and started disclosing the organization behind each within the ad. The changes were made in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where foreign interference attempted to influence the elections. A year later, Facebook rolled out these rules worldwide.

The Mark Zuckerberg-founded social network has most recently courted controversy with another set of politics-related policies. Last year, Facebook issued a new policy that essentially exempts politicians from its misinformation guidelines, allowing them to lie on the platform. The company was roundly criticized for its decision.

This latest study shows that one of the challenges ahead isn’t just for Facebook to roll out good, effective policy. It’s also required that the company enforces the policies it already has.

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