In light of recent Russia-related disclosures, American politicians have begun weighing in on the lack of transparency in the world of politically motivated online ads. On Tuesday, Twitter chose to get ahead of potential political and legal action by announcing plans to open its advertising disclosure process in a big way.
A blog post titled “New Transparency for Ads on Twitter” detailed coming changes to “political” and “issue-based” advertising on the site. Political ads received a specific focus, and new rules will apply to any ads that fall under the FEC’s definition of political or “electioneering” ads. The interesting stuff here is how much data Twitter will force any political advertisers to disclose, including the following: exactly how much money a single advertiser has spent, other ad campaigns run by the same organization, and all targeting demographics (gender, age, geography).
That kind of cost-breakdown data is the sort of “how does online advertising work” sausage that social media companies generally avoid disclosing. Twitter GM Bruce Falck makes it pretty clear why Twitter would do so, because in the announcement, he cites by name every Senator and House member behind last week’s Honest Ads Act. That bipartisan bill would force social media companies to disclose pretty much all of that aforementioned data.
Twitter’s announcement does go one step further than potential FEC requirements, albeit vaguely, by acknowledging the growing trend of “issue-based” advertising that apparent foreign actors paid for on social media sites throughout the 2016 presidential election season. For example, recently discovered campaigns (paid and otherwise) on social media networks were sometimes developed with less obvious political goals, such as leading particularly left-wing or right-wing readers to politically divisive stories. Those kinds of campaigns could still be run without technically falling into the FEC’s “electioneering” definition.
“We are committed to stricter policies and transparency around issue-based ads,” Falck writes. But then he concedes that there’s “no clear industry definition for issue-based ads” and suggests that Twitter will “define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach mentioned above.” For perspective on how quickly that may happen, this statement comes from a company that has spent more than nine years making vague promises about increased transparency.
The best practice Twitter may have in this regard is a new “advertising transparency center,” also announced in Falck’s Tuesday blog post, that will publicly disclose which companies are responsible for which ad campaigns, along with other identifying data. Images or previews of this transparency center were not included in the announcement, while its rollout wasn’t dated beyond “the coming weeks.” Falck says that all announced changes will first appear on the US version of Twitter and will then be rolled out internationally at an unnamed time.
In spite of these efforts, social media firms like Twitter and Facebook still face upcoming panel discussions with leading House and Senate members on advertising policy and potentially complying with FEC regulations (which themselves must be amended, as per the Honest Ads Act, to cover social-media platforms). There’s also the matter of the announcement admitting that its policies could be violated by default, with promises of “stronger penalties for advertisers who violate policies.” US regulators will have to answer whether they’re fine with Twitter’s financial slaps on the wrists as punishment for, say, rich foreign actors who meddle in US elections.