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Facebook and Twitter are trying to thwart Russian trolls in the midterms

Their latest updates aim to make it harder for bad actors to purchase political ads.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Testifies At House Hearing
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April 2018.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

As the midterm elections get into full swing, Twitter and Facebook are making concrete changes to how they treat political advertising, trying to prevent the kind of Russian-linked activity that took place during the 2016 election.

Facebook announced Thursday that it’s launching an advertising archive that functions as a database for users to find out more about political ads on the social network. Users will be able to click on political ads they see and get details about how much money was spent on them, as well as the number of people who’ve viewed them. The company will preserve ads in this database for seven years.

All political election and issue ads will also now bear clear “Paid for by X” labels. These disclosures will apply to ads that specifically advocate for a candidate as well as ones that touch on broader issues, like immigration or civil rights. Many of the ads that have been associated with Russian-linked trolls focused on issues like gun control, rather than a particular candidate.

A screengrab of Facebook’s new political advertising archive.

“These changes won’t fix everything, but they will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post explaining the announcement.

As part of its array of changes, Facebook is also implementing more stringent processes to verify the identity and location of any user that is interested in purchasing a political ad, something Twitter also announced on Thursday.

Twitter will require advertisers interested in running promotions for a federal election campaign to verify their identities via a Federal Election Commission ID or a notarized document. The policy calls on advertisers to prove that they’re physically located in the United States and will involve Twitter mailing a letter to a specific address inside the country.

Twitter will begin enforcing its authentication procedures later this summer, when it also plans to unveil an Ads Transparency Center that will contain information about funding and targeting of political ads on its site. Earlier this week, the company said it would start explicitly labeling the accounts of certain candidates running in the midterms.

Congress has put tech companies in the spotlight

Both companies’ announcements come in the wake of major congressional scrutiny into Russian interference in 2016 — which put the spotlight on tech companies and their roles in spreading misinformation and selling advertising to Russian-linked trolls.

Facebook has found that Russian-linked trolls from the Internet Research Agency purchased at least 3,000 advertisements — many of which sought to sow discord and target American voters on fault lines like race. The company also determined that roughly 126 million users were exposed to content from the IRA.

In Congress, lawmakers including Sens. Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar have pushed for legislation that would require all online platforms to impose clear disclosures on political ads.

The Honest Ads Act would press internet companies to include “Paid for by X” labels for political advertisements, with the goal of establishing a standardized approach across platforms.

“Big step in the right direction — and I’m glad Facebook followed through on my recommendations to improve upon earlier proposals,” Warner said on Twitter, responding to Thursday’s Facebook developments. “Until we pass the #HonestAds Act, there’ll still be a patchwork of disclosure across social media.”

Despite garnering the endorsement of Twitter and Facebook, however, the bill has thus far seen little movement.

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