By: +David Herron; Date: November 3, 2017
In US law it is illegal for foreign nationals to purchase political advertising. It is easy for anyone to use the advertising platforms run by Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so forth. Anyone can sign up to run advertising, and Facebook/Google/Twitter et al are raking in tons of cash by showing advertising to their large audiences. The problem comes when someone places illegal advertising -- do these companies have adequate screening to avoid aiding and assisting folks committing fraudulent or illegal advertising?
In this case the concern is foreign governments (such as Russia) placing politically manipulative advertising. It's feared that Russia has launched a "cyber war" spreading propaganda through social media websites, and through blogs, with the goal of manipulating the politics of countries around the world. The war is also a War on Truth, meaning that Russia's goals involve destruction of our sense of truthful facts so that political manipulators can spread any kind of idea as if it's factual.
It's not like Russia is the only organization/country doing this kind of thing. The methods ascribed to Russia are commonplace among online marketers -- using roboticized accounts to pump twitter hashtags -- article spinning techniques to publish variants of the same article to multiple blogs -- etc -- are well known spammy low-integrity methods of gaming the search engines. For what it's worth, Russia does present a greater risk to society-as-a-whole than does a company pushing a new-and-improved soap. That's why Russia is in the crosshairs right now.
As we noted a couple days ago, Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al, submitted written testimony to Congressional hearings. The testimony admitted to a greater-than-previously-admitted scale of advertising and social media postings by accounts that might be associated with Russians. Specifically accounts connected to the Internet Research Agency. The IRA is a group based in Russia, closely linked to Russian Intelligence, that is widely understood to be widely using social media networks and fake-news-blog networks for Russian propaganda purposes.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the same companies testified in front of the corresponding Congressional Committees.
The committee members were not impressed. The companies sent their corporate lawyers, who did their best to "defend" their clients, namely the corresponding companies. The committee members instead wanted to interview the CEO's, because they make the decisions. The other issue is that the companies seemingly have done very little to address the problem.
Enforcing the ban on illegal foreign-based political advertising
The bottom line issue is that in the USA it's illegal for foreign nationals to buy political advertising.
Facebook et al must incorporate those legal requirements into its own policies for allowing advertising.
Facebook in particular has said repeatedly those advertisements would be approved under Facebooks policies IF PLACED BY LEGITIMATE ACCOUNTS. Meaning, the account owners' identity is obscured, breaking Facebook's policy on real names and real identities. If the account owner had clearly self-identified as so-and-so in St. Petersburg Russia, a Russian citizen working for the Internet Research Agency, then Facebook would have no qualms in running the advertisements.
That some of the advertisements were paid in Rubles was described by Facebook's lawyer as "a signal we should have been alert to," and that:
“I can tell you that we’re not going to permit political advertising by foreign actors. The reason I’m hesitating on foreign currency is that it’s relatively easy for bad actors to switch currency. It’s a signal, but it’s not enough — we have to sweep more broadly." -- Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch
In this context the word "signal" means that Facebook (and other similar companies) use algorithms to detect bad behavior. Each thing measured by the algorithm is a "signal", and for a given posting if enough signals are raised then the algorithms will route the posting to the moderation team.
When one places an advertisement through Facebook, it is sent to a review team who will approve or deny the advertisement. Once approved, it starts being shown to Facebook users, and the advertiser is charged a fee for each viewing. That review process is the leverage point where these companies can test whether it's a legal advertisement or not.
The international nature of the Internet makes it difficult to enforce such laws. Not only is it relatively easy for bad actors to switch currency, it's relatively easy to appear to come from another country. Simply using a VPN can obscure ones apparent location.
But the financial incentive weighs against conducting a thorough review. Any ad that's disapproved is lost revenue. Therefore these companies are highly motivated to approve as many ads as possible.
It's being reported that Twitter wanted RT News to "spend big" on advertising during 2016, offering the network 15% of Twitters advertising space. RT News is well known to be owned by the Russian government, and is clearly publishing content slanted way towards Russian propaganda. I'm not willing to call RT News a propaganda outfit. It's obvious that RT's news coverage is highly slanted to portraying everything Russia does as enlightened and for the betterment of humanity, while everything the West (USA etc) does is clueless and destined to give humanity more pain and suffering.