For the first time on Friday, Facebook Inc. backed proposed legislation that would require social media websites to reveal the identities of those who purchase online political campaign ads. The social network also introduced a new verification process for buyers of ‘issue’ ads, which have previously been used for sowing discord on the internet. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, announced this change in stance through a Facebook post. This announcement comes only a few days before the CEO is scheduled to attend congressional hearings for answering how the users’ data is handled by the company.
The purpose of these steps is to prevent the online information warfare and election meddling Russia has been accused of pursuing in the US presidential elections in 2016. These allegations have been denied by Moscow. Zuckerberg said in his post that he supports the Honest Ads Act because the problem of election interference is bigger than just one platform. Introduced last October, this legislation has not been passed as yet. Its purpose is to counter concerns about foreign nationals taking advantage of social media for influencing American politics. This is part of the investigation into possible meddling by the Russians during the US presidential elections in 2016.
Zuckerberg said that he also wanted to discuss the ‘issue ads’ or ads that focus on a political subject such as racism or gun laws, but are not directly related to a candidacy or an election. These ads would now require every advertiser to confirm location and identity. He said that any advertiser not meeting the set criteria wouldn’t be allowed to run issue or political ads. In September, Facebook revealed that Russians had used the social network under fake names in order to influence US voters in the months before and after the presidential election in 2016.
They had bought ads, set up events and written about inflammatory subjects. US Special Counsel Robert Mueller had charged 13 Russians in February as well as three Russian firms for interfering in the election by trying to sow discord through social media. Democratic Senator Mark Warner said that in order to counter such activities that are conducted by organizations such as the Internet Research Agency in Russia, it is essential to verify the identity of those purchasing the ads. He is a sponsor of the legislation called the Honest Ads Act, which is aimed at expanding on election law that applies to television, radio as well as paid digital and internet advertisement platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google. Twitter and Google haven’t commented on it as yet.
Previously, Facebook had stopped short of supporting this legislation and had announced attempts at self-regulation and additional discussions with lawmakers. Now, the support of the social media giant was welcomed by the bill’s sponsor. So far, they have had to face an uphill fight because Republicans dominate the Senate and House and they are generally skeptical of any regulations pertaining to political ads. There is on Republican sponsor of the Senate legislation and that is Senator John McCain.