Earlier this week, Facebook revealed that 126 million Americans, roughly one-third of the nation’s population, received Russian-backed content during the 2016 presidential campaign.
More specifically, 29 million Americans read 80,000 posts by 120 fake Russian-backed pages on their News Feeds. But it doesn’t stop there, as those ads were shared, liked and followed by millions more people.
Last week, ahead of these admissions on Capitol Hill, Facebook revealed new steps it was set to put in place to better verify political ads and add in proper disclosures. The social network went further, saying that it intends to create a political advertising repository so that it can track said ads.
We can debate the issues surrounding all of this ad infinitum, but on the face of it, can Facebook truly monitor all of these ads? Is this even possible?
The short answer is no. At this time, it may be nearly impossible for Facebook to do this, and here’s why:
Anyone can make a Facebook page, name it anything they want and pay Facebook to distribute their ad to the masses. Even with new measures in place, this is analogous to laying the railroad tracks just ahead of a speeding train. Once Facebook puts a new parameter and technologies in place to monitor its advertisers’ content, the trolls and bots will likely be one step ahead with ways to circumvent.
Many advertisers use offshore companies to place their ads. How can Facebook possibly determine what might be a legitimate foreign company purchasing on behalf of American companies or organizations and what might be coming disguised as such but is a direct buy from a hostile foreign government or entity? It’s also worth adding that offshore advertising firms aren’t beholden to follow U.S. laws.
The process to approve an ad is mostly automated and without human intervention to prevent malicious or fake content being disbursed. Facebook has a tall task ahead of itself if it is going to identify ways to review the millions of ads and hundreds of thousands of accounts that are posting. For this reason, I believe Facebook should step up and educate every user on steps to identify fake news and make educated decisions the next time a fake news article goes viral.
For sure, the responsibility lands on Facebook to work hard to assure transparency and accountability with regard to political advertising.
But the onus also falls on all of us users. Facebook has ways to instantly reach all of its users. Just as it has rolled out the superb option for users to mark themselves safe after a natural disaster or other catastrophic event, Facebook could and should send out a notice to users—today—to alert them to what the company is doing and, basically, how to know what’s real and what’s not.
On the heels of all of this controversy and bad press for Facebook, my fear is that many users may now question the authenticity of all of the ads they may see, essentially not believing anything going forward. That would be a mistake.
Facebook has been the No. 1 forum for companies, especially smaller ones, to get their message out and for Facebook users to score deals and discounts from everywhere from fitness clubs to restaurants. This is especially true for small businesses, which can quickly and nimbly get in front of potential customers, growing their businesses without sizable marketing budgets. With that, the social media giant easily beats out TV, newspaper, email and direct mail.
It’s looking increasingly likely that Russian-financed content on social media had a hand in impacting the outcome of the 2016 election. That is a travesty and it should never happen again. But let’s not lose sight of the positive impact Facebook has had for countless brands, businesses and customers alike.
John Farhang is founder and CEO of social media marketing firm Social PhDs.