How Digital Platforms Are Battening Down The Hatches On Political Ads

When Facebook, Twitter and Google executives were summoned late last year to testify before Congress on political interference and advertising in the 2016 election, they were steadfast that they could manage the issue through ad policies and disclosures.

Early bipartisan calls for legislation have mostly faded and, for now, self-regulation is the name of the game.

The following are the measures Facebook, Google and Twitter introduced or expect to be implemented this year to guard against election interference and propaganda.


Facebook promised to roll out a transparency tool before the US midterms so users could see the ads a page is running across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. It will also begin associating each ad creative with a page and providing data on impressions, dollars spent and audience demographics.

The transparency changes may have been catalyzed by the US election, but they apply to every ad across the Facebook platform. For political advertisers, Facebook is also adding identity confirmation and disclosure standards.

One element of Facebook’s political identity enforcement will be mailing postcards to confirm real-world addresses for accounts that run ads mentioning a candidate, Reuters reported earlier this month.

These tests put Facebook on a path toward treating political ads more like the broadcast industry does – where advertiser identities are known and disclosed and the ad rates are tracked. Still, that could be a long path.

The Facebook political disclosure policies (“Paid for by:“) begin with federal elections during the 2018 US midterms, and there’s no timeline for when the technology will roll out to state-level contests.

And it’s not like the bad actors will all sign up.

Candidates, political party spending committees and super PACs with pre-existing relationships with Facebook will come onboard, but Facebook is also working on a machine learning tool to track down unknown advertisers with political content.

Facebook executives declined to comment on the record.


Google has been more buttoned-up than other social ad platforms, but it was part of the Russian-backed operation to influence the US election.

Google’s existing restrictions on political advertisers include disabling retargeting campaigns and restricting the use of mobile location data as well as ad units that can initiate phone calls. Google also prevents political advertisers from tying audience targets to financial information like consumer ratings.

YouTube has pledged to hire thousands of moderators to police content, but that’s more about quality brand exposure than monitoring political activity.

YouTube declined to comment.


Like Facebook, Twitter promised a broad advertising transparency overhaul and additional disclosure policies for political spenders.

Twitter is still in development on the Advertising Transparency Center, a hub that will show every ad on Twitter, who bought the ad and how long the campaign has run for.

“Electioneering ads,” which Twitter defines as ads for a clearly identified candidate or political party, will now include buyer disclosures and Twitter will change the look of political ads and promoted tweets so they stand out from other posts in a feed.

Electioneering ads must also disclose more information in the Advertising Transparency Center, like full campaign spend.

Accounts, though, can do a lot of political and issue-based promotions even without citing candidates or political parties.

“There is currently no clear industry definition for issue-based ads but we will work with our peer companies, other industry leaders, policy makers, and ad partners to clearly define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach,” wrote Bruce Falck, Twitter GM of revenue product and engineering, in a blog post last year.

Twitter will work on its political disclosure advancements in the US before launching globally.

Twitter declined to comment.

The web:

It’s unclear whether the 2016 Russian online influence campaign expanded beyond these major platforms.

Mueller’s indictment said the Russian operatives “(posted) advertisements on US social media and other online sites.” The mention of “other sites” is as close as the indictment gets to implicating off-platform online media.

Still, executives at several self-serve DSPs with political buyers said this year they will add manual checks for political issue-based spenders to confirm customer identity.

“If this stuff leaves Facebook, it’s going to go somewhere,” said JC Medici, a political digital consultant and Rocket Fuel’s national director of politics and advocacy in 2016.

Native content recommendation companies are potentially vulnerable because they offer self-serve platforms for small or startup media outlets – and often Facebook or Twitter troll accounts will pose as such.

Revcontent has seen conservative media companies struggle to generate traffic due to Facebook policy changes following the electoral controversy, CEO John Lemp told AdExchanger.

Rival services like Outbrain and Taboola were pressed to drop relationships with outlets like Breitbart and InfoWars, which now both work with Revcontent.

The goods news (if you call it that) for ad tech and open web players concerned about political penetration is that the focus is likely to stay on the major platforms for the time being.

“For the 2020 cycle you might see meaningful new demands on ad transparency like you have in broadcast,” Medici said. “But it will take legislation to make that happen.”

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