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26th Sep 2021

Facebook launches EU election transparency rules

  • 'We are confident this will be a real barrier for anyone thinking of using our ads to interfere in an election' the US firm said (Photo: portal gda)

Political ads in the EU are to be labelled as having been "paid for by" and restricted to their home countries, US tech giant Facebook has said in its bid to clamp down on abuse ahead of European Parliament (EP) elections in May.

The labels identifying the advertiser, as well as a new database which gives extra information on who they are, how much they paid, and who they targeted, are to come online from Friday (29 March).

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The rules will not affect groups who bought ads before then, but any new ads that do not comply will be taken down from mid-April onward.

The restrictions mean that EU political groups will not be able to use the social media platform to run pan-European campaigns.

The extra information on advertisers will also be available to non-Facebook users to avoid the firm being blamed for trying to get new users as part of its transparency drive.

"I don't want anyone to be in any doubt that this is a top priority for the company," Richard Allan, a senior Facebook executive, told press in a video-conference.

"We will be using a combination of automated systems and user reporting to enforce this policy," he said.

"We recognise that some people can try and work around any system but we are confident this will be a real barrier for anyone thinking of using our ads to interfere in an election from outside of a country," he added.

"We understand why they [some MEPs] want that, but we could not find any way to carve that out without opening up opportunities nobody would want to see," he also said, referring to the geo-blocking rules that would prevent EU-wide campaigns.

The move comes after EU leaders, at a summit last week, once again raised the alarm on "the internal and external aspects of disinformation" in Europe and the need to "protect the European and national elections across the EU".

They urged "private operators such as online platforms and social networks to ... ensure higher standards of responsibility and transparency".

But Facebook's plans also come amid a debate on how to differentiate between news, politics, advertising, and information.

The firm, which earlier rolled out the scheme in Brazil, India, Israel, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the US, has used lists of publishers which it judged to be legitimate news providers and which would be exempt from the "paid for by" labels.

Its staff have mapped out the parties and candidates taking part in the EU elations to see who should be labelled if they buy ads.

They have also created keywords on what they judged to be the main European political issues - political values, immigration, security and foreign policy, civil and social rights, environmental politics, and the economy - to catch out less obvious political advertisers.

The action comes after evidence emerged that Russia used Facebook, as well as other social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, to meddle in the US election in 2016.

But Facebook's internal deliberations effectively means the private, profit-seeking firm is becoming a de facto policeman for online free speech.

Its use of automated software to filter content also means that some of the policing will be done by robots.

The problems were highlighted in an affair last year, which saw some Dutch media cry foul after being labelled as Russian propaganda by EU officials because they had republished Russian media content in an uncritical way.

The climate of accusations and counter-accusations of "fake news" has seen anti-EU politicians accuse EU institutions of brainwashing people by popularising their work online.

A recent British-paid for ad campaign, which targeted over one million British citizens who live in the EU, also posed questions on whether that type of content, which purported to give neutral information on Brexit, would be labelled or even banned by Facebook in future.

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