(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc., aiming to seize the high ground before Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg faces Congress next week, announced changes to its advertising policies that the social media giant says will make it harder for rogue operatives to set up fake accounts and push divisive points of view.
Advertisers touting social or political issues will need to verify their identity and location, Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “This will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way,” he said.
Critics have pilloried the company for letting Russian operatives spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the new policy was welcomed in Washington, where lawmakers have been working on legislation that would force social media companies to be more transparent about who is buying certain kinds of ads.
The announcement caps a week of high drama for Facebook, which has dispatched senior executives to reassure users, advertisers and lawmakers that it’s stepping up efforts to protect privacy and owning up to instances where it failed to safeguard people’s data. The company said it’s shutting down a feature that left at risk the personal information of most of its 2 billion users, and it conceded that as many as 87 million users could have been affected by Cambridge Analytica’s mishandling of data. Facebook shares, having taken a beating amid the non-stop revelations, have recovered since Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg embarked on the public-relations offensive. They are now down about 11 percent so far this year.
Facebook will hire more people to enforce the new advertising policy before the 2018 midterm elections. The company also said it would require managers of popular Facebook pages to have their identity verified.
In an example distributed by Facebook, a mockup ad with a picture of a candidate carries the words, “Political Ad - Paid for by XYZ State Party Committee."
Facebook has grown into a colossus in campaign spending, serving up a rich bounty of intimate data that is used to target potential voters from among its online audience of more than 200 million monthly users in the U.S. Campaign spending on Facebook and other digital media will rise to an estimated $600 million this year, compared with about $250 million in 2014, the last midterm election year, according to an estimate by Kantar Media/CMAG.
Zuckerberg’s scheduled for two hearings next week before Congress, where he will be questioned by lawmakers who have expressed dismay at Russian use of Facebook during the 2016 election, and the exposure of data to Cambridge Analytica, which worked on President Donald Trump’s campaign.
“There are a lot of questions that Mark Zuckerberg needs to answer and I intend to ask what he is doing to protect the privacy of Americans,” Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat pushing legislation for more online ad transparency, said in an April 4 news release.
Facebook is facing pressure on several fronts in Washington. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether the company breached a 2011 consent agreement to safeguard users’ personal information -- a probe that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.
Congress has been examining how Russians used social media platforms to influence the 2016 election, and Klobuchar’s legislation would require disclosure of who’s paying for political ads on social media networks including Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Zuckerberg on Friday said Facebook supports the measure.
“Election interference is a problem that’s bigger than any one platform, and that’s why we support the Honest Ads Act,” Zuckerberg said. “This will help raise the bar for all political advertising online.”
Senator John Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said many Russian ads during the 2016 election didn’t mention candidates by name but did mention “divisive issues” such as guns and immigration.
“That’s why today’s announcement by Facebook is so important, and I would encourage all of the platform companies to follow suit,” Warner said in an emailed statement.
Not everyone was persuaded Facebook’s new policies were sufficiently robust.
“We really need robust privacy laws on the books that finally give the American public control over their sensitive information,” said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
“These proposals don’t go far enough,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based privacy group. “Facebook must stop using our political and personal data information in order to target us with election-related advertising. Disclosure is insufficient as a safeguard with digital political ads which, unlike a TV spot, can follow us everywhere we go online.”
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