Facebook, as you may be aware, is slowly facing up to the fact that connecting everyone on the planet isn’t necessarily the road to a utopian world – or if it is, there are at least some nasty speed bumps along the way. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its political operations, where just a couple of weeks ago it went from boasting that it helped the SNP win 56 out of 59 seats in the 2015 election to hiding any evidence it made the claim.
So does Facebook have no influence or complete control over how people vote? It depends on who you ask (even within the company) but the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. And having any influence whatsoever comes with real responsibilities that the social network is beginning to take somewhat seriously, bringing some old-fashioned measures to a 21st-century world.
Return to sender
In America, Facebook has announced that its technological solution to preventing further Russian interference was first invented 178 years ago: the postcard. Actually, it’s a slightly archaic take on two-factor authentication. If somebody wants to buy adverts for the 2018 midterm elections on Facebook, they’ll be sent a postcard with a code that will then have to be entered on their account. The idea is that this will prove that people wanting to buy an election at least reside in the United States, which is marginally more acceptable than trying to buy it from overseas.
“If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States,” said Facebook’s global director of policy programs, Katie Harbath announcing the change at the weekend, though she acknowledged that “it won’t solve everything.”
That’s clearly true. If you’re really determined, it’s not hard to temporarily visit the USA in order to pick up your postcard before returning to Moscow (or Beijing or Istanbul) to meddle remotely. But it certainly makes his less trivial, which is a start.
Transparency as disinfectant?
On top of this, Facebook has recently announced plans to make political advertising a lot more transparent – which isn’t saying a great deal, considering how opaque it has been historically. Under questioning from the Commons culture committee at a hearing in Washington DC earlier this month, Facebook’s policy director for UK, Middle East and Africa said:
This sounds pretty minor, but could actually be enormous.
In the UK, election spending is supposed to be capped at a local level, but uncapped for national spend. That is to say that while you can spend millions promoting Theresa May and the Conservative Party, you’re only supposed to be able to spend around £15,000 promoting the candidate for Norwich South or Coventry North East. But were parties really making that distinction with Facebook ads that can be targeted not only by age and political belief but by location? It’s hard to believe, but there’s no way of knowing because Facebook just doesn’t share this information. Not with the parties, not with the electoral commission, and certainly not with you.
In Wired’s fascinating long read about Facebook’s recent inner turmoil, it’s reported that the company is planning a series of these announcements to demonstrate it has learned from the lessons of the 2016 presidential election and Brexit referendum. If that’s the case, it will be fascinating to see how much of a case Democrats or Republicans will have left to make against Facebook when the 2018 midterm results begin to roll in.