Facebook is sticking to its November decision to exempt news publishers from its political ads database, reversing its original plan to include them, and drawing criticism for making deference to the mainstream media more important than its stated commitment to transparency.
Last week, the social network announced the rollout of its new “Ad Library,” a publicly accessible database of political ads that have run on the platform, including data on who saw the ad, how many impressions it received, and how much was spent to promote it.
However, mainstream news publishers — who have become adept at pressuring Silicon Valley to follow their lead — will be exempt from the requirement to tag political ads for the ads library.
In other words, even if a news publisher runs an ad specifically related to politics or a political issue, observers will be unable to track its spend, impact and reach through Facebook. The impact of ads from news publishers on politics and political issues through Facebook will remain concealed from the public.
Gary Coby, a former marketing and advertising director for the Trump 2016 campaign, pointed out that this raised major questions over Facebook’s commitment to transparency, and offers a huge advantage to mainstream media organizations.
“It was common practice during the 2016 election for NYTs and WaPo to run ads with v. aggressive headlines against Trump,” noted Coby.
A Facebook representative responded to Coby, arguing that news publishers’ active ads would still be visible through the library. Coby responded that this was insufficient to ensure transparency, as observers would still be unable to access historical data on non-active ads from news publishers.
“I think we’d all agree that the media drives a heavy influence on our political system, good or bad” said Coby. “If your goal is transparency, why wouldn’t you keep MSM non-active ads which drive political influence in the archive/library so people could see their scale & impact over time?”
Facebook’s representative did not directly respond to Coby’s point, but did offer a response to TechCrunch journalist John Constine, who queried why news publishers’ political ads would not be preserved in the Facebook ads library.
In his response, the representative linked to a post explaining that the exemption of news publishers was because it was “problematic for news publishers” and because Facebook wants to “do all that we can to support journalism.” No further explanation was offered.
“Doesn’t speak to why you won’t maintain a public record of politically influential ads which target key voters (women, swing states) with sensational news headlines,” pointed out Coby. “Why scrub this from public view once inactive? Keep it all.”
Facebook’s decision to exempt news publishers from having their political ads preserved in the database followed protests from mainstream news organizations when the ads library project was announced last summer. Nine industry groups representing mainstream publishers protested Facebook’s initial plan to include them, alleging it “blurs the line” between “real reporting from the professional media and propaganda.”
As last week’s announcement shows, Facebook caved in to the mainstream media lobby’s demands.
Yet despite their attempt to distinguish themselves from “propaganda,” the partisan biases and conspiracy-theory tendencies of the purportedly impartial mainstream media continue to be exposed.
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