Half of 2016 election ads on Facebook had little financial information available, says report

April 17, 2018

Nearly half the groups that bought political ads on Facebook during the final, crucial weeks of the 2016 election season were black holes with little, if any, information available to indicate who they were or where their financial backing came from, researchers said Monday.

In a new study that details the effort to influence American elections via social media, University of Wisconsin-Madison analysts reported that of the 228 groups that bought ads on sensitive political issues such as gun control and illegal immigration, 122 were deemed “suspicious.” The definition of “suspicious,” the researchers said, is that there was virtually no publicly available information about them.

Of those 122, it’s believed that about 20 had clear, direct links to the Kremlin, analysts said after cross-referencing their findings with House Intelligence Committee information.

The shadowy organizations which were able to shield their identities and funding sources because they operate online, unlike those that advertised on more traditional mediums such as television or radio targeted voters in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, using emotionally charged ads tailored to fit the demographics and specific political concerns of the voting blocs in those areas.

The new data come just days after Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress for nearly 10 hours, answering lawmakers’ questions on how the social media giant would better protect users’ data and ensure mysterious groups could no longer buy ads on the site without accountability. He voiced support for steps that would require online ad-buyers to disclose their identities and funding, something critics say is desperately needed to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself during the upcoming 2018 midterms.

“This secrecy would not be possible on broadcast advertising,” said University of Wisconsin professor Young Mie Kim, the lead researcher on the study who examined about 5 million paid ads shown on Facebook between Sept. 28 and Election Day on Nov. 8.

“Any TV or radio ad that pertains to a ‘political matter of national importance’ is subject to basic levels of transparency: broadcasters must collect information about the group that bought the advertisement, as well as how much the group paid for the ad and where it was disseminated,” she continued.

In her review, Ms. Kim calls on Congress to pass the Honest Ads Act, bipartisan legislation that would bar some anonymous political advertising on social media sites. The study was released in conjunction with the Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, two advocacy groups that also are explicitly pushing the Honest Ads Act.

Mr. Zuckerberg explicitly endorsed the legislation during his congressional testimony last week, casting it as part of a broader move to regulate the social media giants that now shape America’s cultural and political landscape but lack the government oversight of virtually every other industry.

“The internet is growing in importance around the world in people’s lives; I think it’s inevitable that there will be some regulation,” Mr. Zuckerberg told Congress during his marathon testimony last week.

The Honest Ads Act has at least some bipartisan support; it was introduced by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia, along with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Mr. McCain has called on fellow lawmakers to address the “loopholes” that allow internet ad-buyers to escape virtually any reporting requirements.

Had they been in place in 2016, such laws would’ve shed at least a little bit of light on exactly how targeted and precise the Facebook advertising campaign truly was.

According to Ms. Kim’s research, the ads from “suspicious” sources followed the traditional political playbook of directing most of their fire at key battleground states, and highlighting hot-button issues that were especially important to voters there.

For example, voters in Wisconsin saw ads related to a host of controversial issues such as guns, immigration, terrorism, and racial conflict, while voters in Michigan were “disproportionally targeted” with ads about terrorism and national security.

Low-income voters were shown more ads about immigration and race issues than wealthier voters, the data show.

While the Honest Ads Act is certainly no silver bullet the study concedes that just 38 percent of the ads in question would’ve been forced to disclose their funding under the bill it seems to be something of a starting point for lawmakers and Silicon Valley, with both sides facing public pressure to clamp down on foreign interference.

Last week, on the heels of Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony, Twitter said it will continue work on its own voluntary “Ads Transparency Center,” a new platform aimed at educating voters about where political ads come from.

The program “will dramatically increase transparency for political and issue ads, providing people with significant detail on the origin of each ad,” the company said, adding it plans to launch the center this summer.