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Facebook's New Requirements For Political Ads

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Facebook's credibility has been called into question ever since the company admitted that its platform was used as part of disinformation campaigns during the 2016 elections. Lawmakers threatened regulations, none came. And in the years that followed, the companies struggled to regain trust with the public as other abuses of the platform have come to light. Last week, Facebook announced a new set of requirements for any group or company that wants to target users with political ads on its site.

Here to talk more about that is Dipayan Ghosh. He is co-director of the Technology and Democracy Project at the Shorenstein Center. That's at Harvard's Kennedy School. Ghosh previously worked at Facebook on issues of global privacy and public policy design. Dipayan, thanks so much for joining us.

DIPAYAN GHOSH: Of course. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just start by telling us what we mean by a Facebook ad? Like, what do these political ads look like now, and what will they look like after these new requirements are implemented? I guess what I'm asking is, how will I know if I'm looking at a political ad on Facebook?

GHOSH: Well, that's one of the criticisms that people have laid on this announcement, which is that we're not really going to see. As users of Facebook, we're likely not going to see much change on the front end of seeing the apps that we interact with on Facebook's platforms, Facebook and Instagram. Instead, these changes are more on the back end for Facebook to help verify that the people putting ads out are legitimate political actors.

MARTIN: So to whom is this being disclosed? Is this being disclosed through Facebook? Is this being disclosed to the viewer on the site? How will we know?

GHOSH: Well, it seems like things are slightly unclear still, but what we have heard from the company is that the company is going to move toward a more rigorous verification system. Before - or, in fact, currently what the company is doing is if you're a political operator, a political advertiser and you want to push an ad on Facebook or Instagram or one of its platforms, what you've got to do is essentially just let Facebook know that you're a political advertiser, a political organization. And you've just got to register that with Facebook and register your name and your location.

What Facebook is additionally going to ask for now is, in addition to your street address and contact information, a tax ID number or a Federal Election Commission identification number or some kind of a governmental identification that can help the company verify that you are a political organization. That's the main change that's happening on the back end to help the company sort out whether or not you're a political organization trying to advertise or you're an illegitimate actor that's trying to push a political ad.

MARTIN: And why is that? Again, just for people who - I mean, maybe this is obvious - but why does Facebook remain such an attractive place for political campaigns?

GHOSH: So much attention is moving toward Facebook and other digital platforms - Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Google. So many millions of dollars are spent to push political ads on these platforms. The eyeballs of society, particularly of young people in society who are coming into voting age are on Internet platforms. They're not - they're increasingly less and less on broadcast and radio. Additionally, what what political advertisers have realized is that they can start using these platforms in potentially interesting ways.

They can slice and dice different audience segments, meaning different classes of a constituent population and target them with incisive political advertising that triggers what those constituents believe or attempts to trigger an emotional response in ways that you can't do on broadcast or radio because you've got to advertise to the entire constituent population, not just a targeted segment of it. And this, in fact, is exactly the tool that the Russian disinformation operators used in 2016 and which caused all the problems that we've seen in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica.

MARTIN: So, you know, given all that, given, you know, everything that we just talked about, some have called on Facebook to ban political ads altogether. What's your opinion about that?

GHOSH: I think it's very clear that companies should discontinue political advertising until and unless it can show that it can operate political advertising in a way that protects our democracy. To the extent that we lack transparency into the interactions that we have with political ads and the company remains unaccountable to mistakes that it makes, we should absolutely discontinue political advertising on Facebook. Now, the company can correct those problems, and if it can, then I think it can come back. But for the time being, we've seen too many mistakes to allow for another 2016 to happen.

MARTIN: That's Dipayan Ghosh. He is a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. He's the co-director of the Technology and Democracy Project there. Mr. Ghosh, thank you so much for talking to us.

GHOSH: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: And we do want to mention that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.