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Facebook Starts Labeling Political Ads in the U.S.

Facebook took another step to make it harder for Russia, and other bad actors, to influence future elections Thursday: The company began rolling out a labeling system for political ads in the U.S., which shows users who paid for any such ad, and which audiences were targeted by the ad.

Political ads on Facebook and Instagram will now come with a clearly visible disclosure on who paid for the ad. Users who click on any of these disclosures can visit a special archive page for the ad, where they get to see other ads bought by the advertiser, as well as the amount of money the advertiser paid for the campaign, and the audiences it targeted.

Users from around the world can also use this archive browse any of the political ads that are currently running in the U.S., and even go into the archives and revisit some of the ads any advertiser bought in the past. The company plans to bring similar labeling and archiving practices to other countries around the world in the coming months.

Facebook started to aggregate political ads in this archive earlier this month, and ultimately wants to make ads publicly available for up to 7 years — a period that the company decided on to make sure that it covers a full Senate cycle of 6 years.

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Facebook’s ad labeling is not dissimilar to the way political ads are being presented on TV, but the company does go further by not just labeling ads from candidates and campaigns as such.

Instead, the company is also labeling issues-based ads as political. The company is using a list of 20 broad issues to identify such ads as political. This list includes obviously divisive issues like abortion, immigration and guns, but also ads that make political statements about taxes, values and health — areas where it sometimes can be a harder to decide whether a message is political or not.

“We won’t always get it right,” the company’s global politics and government outreach director Katie Harbath and public policy director Steve Satterfield said in a blog post Thursday. ” We know we’ll miss some ads and in other cases we’ll identify some we shouldn’t.”

Facebook director of product management Rob Leathern said during a press call Thursday that the company is vetting any political advertiser to verify their identity, a process that involves sending them unique codes to a U.S.-based address to verify that ads aren’t being bought by foreign actors. It is also asking users to report political ads that aren’t labeled as such. “We invite you to report ads so we can get better faster,” Leathern said.

The company will analyze the images and text used in individual ads with a combination of human reviewers and artificial intelligence. Leathern said Thursday that Facebook may at some point share the policies and training materials that its reviewers are using to decide whether an ad is political, but he also cautioned that it didn’t want to tip its hand to bad actors looking to circumvent its policies.

Speaking of bad actors: Russia’s disinformation campaign may have prompted Facebook to take this action, but the company won’t actually include the ads bought by Russia’s Internet Research Agency in the political ads archive. “Those ads have been released to the public,” said Satterfield Thursday. “We are focused on efforts going forward to election integrity.”

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