Facebook Reconsiders Plan to Group News With Political Advertisers


Facebook Inc. doesn’t know how news organizations will fit into an initiative to provide transparency for political advertising on its social network.

The company came up with a policy that puts news publishers in the same category as political publishers for the purposes of its new ad-transparency efforts. Facebook told media organizations they would have to verify their identities and have any ads promoting stories about politics placed in a public database, just like political campaigns would.

Within hours of a Bloomberg News report on the initiative and criticism from news organizations, Facebook decided to rethink its plan. It no longer has a clear solution for transparency around ads that promote news stories about politics, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The confusion at Facebook, even after making a decision, underscores how difficult it will be for the company to clean up false information and manipulation on its social network ahead of elections. Facebook has been working on ways to boost more trustworthy news on its site, without judging the content itself. Transparency in media advertising would help combat a trend of hyper-partisan pages on Facebook that post information masquerading as news, meant to go viral in a way that furthers political agendas. But putting legitimate news sites in the same category, and in the category of political content, is likely to erode trust in factual reporting, a media industry group argued.

“We’re making changes that impact political and issue ads with new labels and a searchable archive,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, said in a revised statement on Friday. “We recognize the news content about politics is different and we are working with publishers to develop the right approach.”

The social-media giant sent letters this week to members of the News Media Alliance, which include the New York Times and the Washington Post, outlining new rules that would take effect May 22. Under the guidelines, Facebook said it would disclose when news organizations pay to boost the exposure of political articles, and store the details in an archive that includes ads for politicians or political groups. The political articles promoted would include labels specifying “paid for by,” just like the political ads.

The notification prompted backlash from the News Media Alliance, which represents nearly 2,000 news organizations, arguing that their members should be left out of the database and the new rules on disclosure will ultimately elevate less-credible news sources on Facebook.

“Your plan to group quality publishers alongside political advocacy, which the ad archive will do, dangerously blurs the lines between real reporting and propaganda,” David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, said in a letter Friday addressed to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg. “This treatment of quality news as political, even in the context of marketing, is deeply problematic.”

Critics have pilloried Facebook for letting Russian operatives spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. The company has announced changes to its advertising policies that it’s said would make it harder for rogue operatives to set up fake accounts and push divisive points of view. One of the requirements includes forcing advertisers touting social or political issues to verify their identity and location.

Another change entails creating a political ad archive, showing the total amounts spent, the number of impressions and demographic information including age, location and gender of who saw them.

“Preventing misinformation and interference in elections is one of our top priorities,” Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships at Facebook, said in an earlier statement Friday. “All ads on politics and issues will be in a searchable archive, including news content.” She later revised her statement, removing the reference to news content.

The issue of political ads on social media has caught the attention of Congress. Senators Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would subject online political ads to similar disclosure rules that now govern advertising content in other media such as TV and radio. The measure has the support of Facebook and Twitter.

The Federal Election Commission is also considering new regulations that would require disclaimers identifying the sponsors of online, mobile and other forms of digital advertising, offering alternative rules. A public hearing on the proposals is scheduled for June.