One of the big problems Facebook has faced in recent years is the creation of fake accounts, particularly those that post political ads. Facebook announced earlier this year that they had addressed this issue by adding a “paid for” message at the top of each ad. As Mark Zuckerberg has said time and time again, Facebook has made mistakes, they are sorry, and they will fix them. The final item was touted as an important one, particularly during the run-up to the midterm elections.
But today VICE News reported that this fix wasn’t a fix at all. The media organization decided to test it and see how well it worked. What they discovered was that it did not prevent anyone from posting an account and lying about who paid for it.
VICE decided to buy fake ads using the names of each of our 100 U.S. senators so that each ad would say, “Paid for by a specific U.S. Senator.” The result? Each ad was approved with no resistance. VICE News was also able to associate these ads with other known fake political groups, such as “Ninja Turtles PAC.”
They explained, “VICE News did not buy any Facebook ads as part of the test; rather, we received approval to include ‘Paid for by’ disclosures for potential ads.”
This wasn’t the first time they tested Facebook’s new policy. Last week they received approval to run political ads posing as Vice President Mike Pence, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, and the Islamic State group. They did have one ad rejected: an ad on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
What this showed is that most anyone can buy fake ads in the name of pretty much anyone, and Facebook will allow them to be posted. The new tool that Facebook recently added to increase our trust in advertising just doesn’t work and their efforts to fix the trust issues are either a sham or mere incompetence.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement to VICE News, “If Facebook is going to claim to verify who’s paying for political ads, they need to actually do the work. Clearly they need to do far more to combat fraudulent and false content, both in paid advertisements and viral posts.”
Facebook responded by noting that the disclosures in the names of U.S. senators should never have been approved, but they still claim that the feature has brought a new level of transparency to political advertising and said it’s just one of several efforts they are making.
When this tool was announced in May, Facebook director of product management Rob Leathern noted, “We know we can’t do this alone, and by housing these ads for up to seven years, people, regulators, third parties and watchdog groups can hold these groups more accountable.” He added, “This will help ensure that you can see who is paying for the ad, which is especially important when the Page name doesn’t match the name of the company or person funding the ad.” He explained that the changes “will not prevent abuse entirely. We’re up against smart, creative and well-funded adversaries who change their tactics as we spot abuse, but we believe that they will help prevent future interference in elections on Facebook. And it is why they are so important.”
But VICE News found that acting on behalf of the 100 senators “didn’t require being smart, creative, or even particularly well-funded. Receiving approval to run an ad ‘paid for’ by a senator typically just took a few minutes. We used 10 fake Facebook pages with no content and changed the ‘paid for’ disclosure after each senator was approved.”
This incident is just another in a long string of embarrassments for Facebook. What it shows is that they either are not taking the criticism seriously, they are incapable of fixing their issues, or these issues just can’t be fixed due to the nature of Facebook’s design. But whatever the case, it may not matter, because more and more users are abandoning the platform.
Recode has reported that in their second quarter, Facebook is no longer growing in the United States and Canada and added just 22 million new daily active users worldwide. That represents its lowest quarter-over-quarter jump since more than seven years.
While that’s bad news for Facebook, it’s good news for the rest of us, because it shows that if they can’t fix their problems, users will notice and are smart enough to abandon a platform that increasingly is becoming filled with inciteful ads, becoming even more of a swampland.