Facebook announced this week it intends to implement more stringent verification standards for political ads ahead of the US presidential election.
Despite the apparent crackdown, loopholes still exist that campaigners say will enable ‘astroturf’ groups to emerge in the event of a general election in the UK.
In a blog post, the social media giant said that organisations and individuals buying political ad space on the platform will have to provide more detailed information than ever before. This will include information including a Federal Election Commission ID number, which is extremely difficult to fake.
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“We’re sharing additional steps we’re taking to protect elections and prepare for the US 2020 election,” the blog post reads. “Those steps include strengthening the authorisation process for US advertisers, showing people more information about each advertiser and updating our list of social issues…to better reflect the public discourse on and off Facebook.”
According to the Open Rights Group, the new process will mean organisations receive a “confirmed organisation” watermark on their adverts.
However, organisations of any size may be able to receive this watermark if verifiable phone numbers, business emails, mail-deliverable addresses and business website details are provided.
“Ostensibly, this is to lower barriers to entry for smaller campaign groups. In practice, this loophole is open to abuse by anyone with a computer, a phone, and a mailing address,” the ORG warned.
In a UK context, campaigners suggest that groups claiming to be grassroots organisations can achieve the same confirmed status. In turn, this may allow powerful interest groups to “manufacture support” for causes on social media while “hiding behind a smokescreen of authenticity”.
Pascal Crowe, data and democracy project officer for ORG, commented: “The loophole in these requirements means any astroturf campaign with an email account, mobile phone, and mailing address can set up shop as a grassroots movement.
“Powerful interest groups will abuse speech rights online to tighten their stranglehold on democratic debate by throwing money at political advertising. It’s going to take tighter rules and tougher sanctions to stop Steve Bannon or Lynton Crosby – Facebook must urgently take this into account for any upcoming election.”