Facebook started in 2004 as a way for Harvard students to rank girls by “hotness”. Just over a decade later, it was being blamed for altering the course of a United States presidential election. 

After Brexit, after Trump, after Cambridge Analytica, Facebook has had enough. In 2018, it launched a platform that allowed the public to see almost exactly how much money American political parties spent on ads, who they targeted and who ended up seeing them. The policy is mandatory in some countries and voluntary in others – including New Zealand, where only ACT and the Green Party have opted in.

On Twitter, political ads – including advertisements referencing a ballot issue like the upcoming referendums on voluntary euthanasia and legalising recreational cannabis – will be banned entirely, CEO Jack Dorsey announced in October.

The online ad landscape

Facebook’s ad library allows the public to see a handful of details related to any given active ad, including from non-political groups or individuals and on non-political causes. For those political parties which sign up to increased transparency, a wider range of data is shared and inactive ads, or those that have already run their course, are included as well.

For example, the Green Party ran an ad from December 9 to 13 inviting people to meet with MP Jan Logie in Ōtaki. Less than $100 was spent and the post received between 2,000 and 3,000 impressions. More women saw the ad than men, a 61 percent to 36 percent. 56 percent of the people who saw it were based in the Manawatu-Wanganui region and 43 percent were in the Wellington region.

By comparison, an active ad on the page of a political party that hasn’t opted in merely displays the ad itself and the date it started running.

“For us, signing up to ad library report was an obvious step. We believe in a strong democracy where people can see where information is coming from, who is paying for it, and how it’s being used,” Green Party spokesperson Pete Huggins said.

“As social media becomes more and more powerful, we think it’s important for political parties to be transparent about the information they are putting out.”

ACT confirmed to Newsroom that both the party page and party leader David Seymour’s page are or soon will be signed up to the ad library.

A National Party spokesperson said only that the party is “considering it, and we’ll make a decision in due course”. Labour and New Zealand First did not respond to a request for comment and neither are currently signed up to the ad library.

A Facebook spokesperson also told Newsroom that the platform will announce “specific integrity products for NZ’s 2020 election” next year.

Facebook and Twitter diverge

While Facebook has strived for increased transparency on political ads, it has come under fire for not vetting ads based on content. When fake news articles are shared on the website, it will often attach a tag alerting readers that the content may be unreliable. However, if false claims are part of a political ad, no such tag is added and the advertisement is not taken down.

President Trump has already put more than a million US dollars into Facebook advertising for his reelection campaign, putting up hundreds of ads that often contain falsehoods. To protest against inaction by the tech platform, Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren ran a political ad falsely claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump.

In order to circumvent the tricky role of choosing what political speech to allow and what political speech to ban, Twitter has simply banned promoting political advertising outright. In response to a request for comment, Twitter directed Newsroom to the new policy, which states that “Twitter globally prohibits the promotion of political content. We have made this decision based on our belief that political message reach should be earned, not bought.”

The platforms definition of political content is broad and would cover ads related to the referendums on legalising recreational cannabis and voluntary euthanasia. “We define political content as content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome,” the policy states.

“Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content, are prohibited under this policy.”

However, promoting posts on Twitter rarely has a major impact and, under the new policy, regular non-promoted political tweets will still be allowed. This means parties and politicians can continue to tweet out their messages, they just won’t be able to pay for those messages to be promoted to people who don’t follow them.

It is unclear whether Facebook’s transparency policies would also apply to referendums. A Facebook spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for further comment.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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