Democracy: Now More Transparent - Veritas Communications
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Democracy: Now More Transparent

“You’ve enriched America,” says U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham to representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google last week. “We have more information available to us, we can find the answer to almost any question, we can share aspects of our lives [but] these technologies also can be used to undermine our democracy and put our nation at risk…”

If you’re any kind of regular reader of the news, it’s been hard to miss the overwhelming coverage surrounding the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. More recently, though, lawmakers have shifted their focus on some the world’s most influential companies – Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Under testimony before Congress earlier this month, each of the three tech giants were pressed on their ability to prevent foreign entities from taking advantage of their platforms and are now under fire for failing to stop — or even realize — the ways that their ad services had been used to spread misinformation to voters leading up to November 8, 2016.

Within these hearings, Facebook told congressional investigators that a total of 80,000 ads, from Kremlin-linked companies, were seen by 126 million people over the course of two years. Meanwhile, Twitter said it identified over 2,700 Russian-backed accounts and Google also published a new set of findings from its investigation into Russian interference, confirming that similar accounts uploaded more than 1,000 videos to Google-owned YouTube.

These ads – which are slowly being made public – were sought to spark racial, religious or other socio-political tensions with voters, focusing on issues such as gun control, abortion, immigration, LGBTQ rights, as well as other key electoral topics in advance of the election itself. Now, Facebook, Twitter and Google are all scrambling to update their policies to ensure that Russia, any other foreign government, and even businesses, can’t take advantage of their influence again.

Facebook has already promised several changes to its advertising policies, including a pledge to hire 1,000 more ad moderators who will review and remove inappropriate ads. It has also promised to invest more in artificial intelligence software to flag these kinds of ads automatically. Facebook said it will also now require all advertisers that wish to buy political ads to provide “more thorough documentation” which would, theoretically, prohibit foreign entities from paying for any kind of political message on the platform.

Twitter, on the other hand, will look to provide more information about political advertisements, including who is paying for them and why they’re being targeted to a specific user. A new department called the Advertising Transparency Center will be to be launched to provide its users with more information about the ads they’re seeing and tools to provide feedback.

These moves mark an aggressive approach for both social networks, but what is equally aggressive is how the political investigation, and its ramifications, have seeped into other ad decisions and brought up other issues of transparency.

The new, and aforementioned, Advertising Transparency Center from Twitter will not only disclose information about political ads, but ads that fall within other categories, such as for a business or brand. User will now know how long an ad has been running but also the creative agency associated with it, and personalized information such as why the ads is specifically being targeted to them.

Facebook also recently revealed a new system of disclosing what groups and companies paid for business/brand ads on its platform – effectively removing their so-called “dark posts”. Any ads running on Facebook will be now be viewable by anyone. Until now, these dark posts allowed brands to target a particular set of people but were invisible otherwise, as they didn’t appear as posts on a brand or group’s page. Now there will be a “view ads” icon on every page that will show exactly what ads that page’s operator is buying.

In an effort to provide transparency for the typical user, there is now an implied wider impact for the marketers who create and purchase the ads. Until now, businesses have had limited visibility into the social strategies of their competitors. Unlike on TV, where McDonalds would be able to see what ads were being produced by Tim Hortons, a brand could never know what creative, messaging or products a competitor was pushing on Facebook, when or to whom. Brand and their agencies alike will be now be able to easily see what their rivals are doing, and get a fuller sense of a brand’s effort in the social space.

With the influence of these social platforms increasing at a seemingly daily rate, these policy decisions could be just the beginning of a new social landscape. One that holds Facebook, Twitter and the like to the same transparency standards as any other media company or publication, one that ensures these companies have a responsibility to put safeguards in place to protect our democracy – both political and economical, and one that puts the user experience first, even if it potentially reduces profitability.

Until then, we’ll have our popcorn out watching this Russia investigation unfold.

This blog post was written by our social/digital expert and Account Manager, Kayla Kaminski. For more, follow us @VeritasComm on Twitter.