BRAMPTON, Ont. — Facebook and other social media platforms around the world need to use internationally-agreed upon standards for monitoring and taking down troublesome online political ads, according to a British expert.

Sam Jeffers, a visiting global fellow at Ryerson University’s Leadership Lab and co-founder of the U.K. based service Who Targets Me, which monitors the use of political advertising on social media, told the audience that too many social media platforms use their own rules for policing political ads which lack public transparency.

Sam Jeffers, co-founder of the U.K. based service Who Targets Me, which monitors the use of political advertising on social media. Photo by Howard Solomon.

“We think once you have achieved a certain size you should have to follow a common standard and assure the public it’s being followed,” he said.

While some platforms keep an archive of political ads, the public also needs to know more about the data behind paid political ads, Jeffers said. “It’s not just the content of the message but also the money that’s being spent, the reach that it’s getting. That’s still very invisible.”

The public also needs to understand how social media verifies the identity of what he called “bad actors” who participate in what some platforms euphemistically call “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour.”

Facebook, Jeffers said, makes a big show of removing pages on its platform with what it says is “inauthentic.” But he added, it often isn’t clear how it makes the decisions or what is objectionable.

It may be up to governments, he added, to create these internationally-recognized standards so the public can see platforms are taking down paid political ads by groups trying to hide their identity for the same reason.

Coincidentally Jeffers spoke the same morning Prime Minister Trudeau called the Oct. 21 federal election. His address was co-sponsored by the Leadership Lab and Ryerson University’s Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst, a not-for-profit research and training corporation based in Brampton. The Catalyst is trying for some visibility, aiming to open a full-time office in December and to start offering courses in February 2020.

Plug-in for Facebook

Who Targets Me is a browser plug-in for tracking sponsored posts a user will see on their Facebook news feed. These posts are matched against categorized lists of political advertisers. The software then shows a breakdown of the political ads each user can see. The data gathered helps give an idea of how users of the plug-in are being targeted compared with other people by categories (for example, age group).

Ultimately it helps people see who is churning out political ads and how they are being used in campaigns to sway opinion or votes.

Jeffers said it is being used by 20,000 people in 80 countries. In this year alone it has monitored ads during elections in Poland, Israel, and Austria. It will be officially launched shortly in Canada for the October vote.

The plug-in only looks at paid political advertising on Facebook and not on misinformation/disinformation posts.

Jeffers said he and his partner created the plug-in because of the huge growth in political advertising on Facebook and the role it might play in swaying elections or referendums. The possibility is particularly contentious in the U.K. after the narrow 2016 Brexit referendum where the consultancy Cambridge Analytica used Facebook subscriber data for targeted advertising.

The Globe and Mail is supporting a similar tool called the Facebook Political Ad Collector.

Are ads effective?

How effective are political ads on social media? Jeffers admits it’s an open question. In an interview, he said campaigning in general is not just about helping people make up their minds. It’s also about building enthusiasm for supporters, enticing volunteers, and helping to raise money.

“And we know it’s effective for that,” he said. “We don’t know if it shifts opinion.”

Some U.S studies suggest TV ads make no difference in the way a person will ultimately vote but may impact a person’s seriousness to vote. On the other hand, he added, social media advertising came to be “tremendously engaging” because people can like and share an ad with others.

What he finds frustrating is that Facebook has said it wants to help researchers examine the effectiveness of online ads, but so far the company has only released one dataset that can be worked on.

Facebook ought to know whether political ads are effective, Jeffers said, because it has the largest set of data about users and categorizes users’ political leanings in a variety of ways by, for example, analyzing the interests or pages they like.

Other social media platforms are also reluctant to release their data for analysis, he added.

Three camps

There are three camps in the debate, Jeffers said: Ads aren’t effective at changing people’s minds, which social media doesn’t want to admit because they’d lose revenue; ads are effective, and social media will cash in; or ads are kind of effective in ways that aren’t clear yet.

He said he believes Facebook knows the answer. “To be fair, they’ve only said to me they think they’re that middle ground — it works a bit, it doesn’t work as much as everyone says.”

Even so, it’s important voters know who is paying for all types of political advertising. Parliament just passed Bill C-76, which forces online content platforms that allow political ads to create a registry of domestic and foreign political advertisers during federal elections.

In June Facebook Canada said it will comply. Anyone who wants to run ads about social issues, elections, or politics on the platform here will need to first confirm their identity and location in Canada, and disclose who is responsible for the ad. An ad library will keep copies of ads and data about who saw the ad for researchers to access for seven years.

Google has decided not to accept political ads during the election period so it won’t have to create an ad registry.

Jeffers noted that while some politicians are worried about the influence of foreign governments on elections through social media, domestic people and organizations are adapting tactics — including hiding the identity of posters and advertisers — learned during the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the alleged Russian use of social media during the 2016 U.S. election.

“This type of fake activity is a real problem when the Russians do it,” Jeffers said. “We should probably consider it a problem when domestic actors do it.”

There is a crisis in democracies, he argued, that “puts a halt to the idea that the Internet and social media are great democratizing forces when it comes to giving people information and a voice in their society.”

He said people now have to ask “how you can remodel democracy to withstand the stresses being placed on them?”

Right now in the U.S., he noted, some candidates gearing up for next year’s elections are spending $200,000 a week on Facebook advertising.



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