Facebook Approves Political Ads From 100 Out Of 100 Fake Senators

Facebook approved political ads by journalists pretending to be political candidates 100 out of 100 times, according to a report by VICE

One of Facebook’s major efforts to add transparency to political advertisements is a required “Paid for by” disclosure at the top of each ad supposedly telling users who is paying for political ads that show up in their news feeds.

But on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, a VICE News investigation found the “Paid for by” feature is easily manipulated and appears to allow anyone to lie about who is paying for a political ad, or to pose as someone paying for the ad. -VICE

To test Facebook's system, VICE News applied to run ads on behalf of all 100 sitting US senators, "including ads "Paid for by" Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer." Each and every one was approved, suggesting that anyone can buy a political ad and pretend to be a major US politician

While VICE didn't actually buy any advertising, Facebook granted permission for the fake senators to share ads from fake political groups such as "Cookies for Political Transparency," and "Ninja Turtles PAC." 

Last week, VICE conducted a test in which they sought and received approval to run political ads pretending to be Mike Pence, DNC Chairman Tom Perez and the Islamic State Group. An attempt to place an ad posing as Hillary Clinton was not approved

But these tests show that compliance with the feature is entirely voluntary, meaning a tool that Facebook introduced to increase trust in advertising can also be used as a vector for misinformation, and another way bad actors can game Facebook’s platform. -VICE

"If Facebook is going to claim to verify who’s paying for political ads, they need to actually do the work," said Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D), who added "Clearly it needs to do far more to combat fraudulent and false content, both in paid advertisements and viral posts."

Facebook confirmed their approval of the 100 "Paid for by" disclosures by fake Senators, adding that they never should have been approved. Hilariously, they argued that the feature has brought a new level of transparency to political advertisements, suggesting that we should focus on the big picture. 

"We know we can’t do this alone, and by housing these ads for up to seven years, people, regulators, third parties and watchdog groups can hold these groups more accountable," said Rob Leathern, Facebook's Director of Product Management. 

Facebook rolled out the “Paid for by” tool in May “to help prevent abuse, especially during elections.” Leathern underscored its importance. “This will help ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad,” he wrote at the time. “Which is especially important when the Page name doesn’t match the name of the company or person funding the ad.”

His colleague echoed that a few days ago. “When it comes to advertising on Facebook, people should be able to tell who the advertiser is and see the ads they’re running, especially for political ads,” Facebook Vice President of Ads Rob Goldman wrote on Oct. 27. -VICE

Facebook acknowledged that their new tools to combat foreign influence may not be entirely foolproof.

"These changes will not prevent abuse entirely. We’re up against smart, creative and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse," Leathern wrote, adding. "But we believe that they will help prevent future interference in elections on Facebook. And it is why they are so important."

That said, as VICE notes: "Posing as 100 senators didn't require being smart, creative, or even particularly well-funded," and typically took only a few minutes each. The news outlet used 10 fake Facebook pages with zero content and changed the "paid for" disclosure after each senator was approved. 

In order to run a “Paid for by” disclosure on Facebook, you must first submit the name to the company for approval, along with an image of a valid driver’s license and the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Facebook has embarked on an aggressive advertising campaign to show off its new political transparency tools, including “Paid for by” disclosures. -VICE

VICE was denied on one other name aside from Hillary Clinton; Mark Zuckerberg