On 16 June 2020, Facebook announced that it will roll out a programme to increase political advertising transparency and promote voter education ahead of the US presidential election.
Executive Director of ARTICLE 19 Quinn McKew responded to the announcement:
“Facebook expects that 160 million users in the US will see its information about how and when to vote, showing just how powerful the platform’s reach is. While encouraging participation in elections is good for democracy, we still need more transparency about how Facebook practices related to elections, in particular how it relies on its users’ data for political and other advertising.
“When users engage with Facebook, they provide the social media platform with rich insights into their lives, which are then monetised through advertising. The question we must ask is how this initiative will enrich the data that Facebook already holds on its US users and what this means for freedom of expression and participation in public affairs.”
Under international standards, political advertising is recognised as a protected form of expression and States should encourage a fair system of political advertising. However, limits can legitimately be placed on both the amount of ad spending and its placement.
In particular, the recent Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Elections in the Digital Age states that targeted political advertising should not be allowed without voters’ explicit prior consent.
The new Facebook policy gives users more choice about the political advertising they see. Users will be able to opt-out of receiving “social issue, electoral or political ads from candidates, Super PACs or other organisations that have the “Paid for by” political disclaimer on them”.
ARTICLE 19 supports increasing user choice through giving the option of opting out from micro-targeting. However, since most users rely on default privacy settings, we suggest that either the default setting should be changed to ‘opt-in’, or users should be actively prompted to select whether they do not wish to receive customized advertising.
There is still a lack of transparency about how Facebook allows companies and organisations to use its data to micro-target people. While users might have the choice about opting out of receiving political ads, it appears that this information will continue to be used to inform commercial advertising.
Academics and civil society organisations continue to struggle with access to Facebook’s Ad Library API. ARTICLE 19 reiterates its call on Facebook to provide full access to advertising transparency tools that analyse political ads served to Facebook users.
Social media and voter education
Facebook’s new Voting Information Center will appear at the top of Facebook and Instagram users’ feeds. It will provide information about how and when people can vote. Facebook says it is “working with state election officials and other experts to ensure the Voting Information Center accurately reflects the latest information in each state”.
International human rights standards recognise that voter education and registration campaigns are necessary to ensure the effective exercise of the right to participate in public affairs by an informed community. The content of voter education campaigns needs to be impartial, unbiased and accessible to voters (e.g. by being culturally appropriate). Voter education campaigns should be extended throughout the country and accessible to people with different levels of literacy, in the predominant and minority languages. Although the responsibility for voter education lies with the State, social media can be a useful voter education tool because it is decentralised, multimedia and interactive. Recent research suggests that efforts to promote digital engagement literacies increase youth online engagement in politics, at least in the USA.
In this respect, if Facebook’s initiative can encourage voter participation, it is a welcome move. At the same time, we strongly encourage Facebook to keep this initiative under review. In particular, accessibility will be crucial to encourage voter participation. Facebook is one of the most powerful companies in the world. It has often been accused of undermining democracy and the integrity of elections. We hope that this new initiative signals that it is finally reckoning with its responsibility to respect human rights, democratic participation and freedom of expression – particularly during elections.