Facebook now forcing disclosure of every ad from every brand

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Brand pages will now link to all the ads for that brand currently running on Facebook.
Brand pages will now link to all the ads for that brand currently running on Facebook. Credit: Facebook

Facebook is now showing every ad from every brand running on its platform, part of a new transparency push to fight the type of fraud that marred the political landscape in 2016.

On Thursday, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg announced the realization of the new ad disclosure policies, which will make it possible to click on a brand's page and see every ad it is currently promoting on the social network as well as Instagram, Messenger and the broader Facebook ad network. At the same time, Facebook has put political and issue ads in a special class for even more transparency, where they will be archived for seven years and open to public scrutiny.

The new spirit of ad openness has raised alarm among some advertisers worried that their ad strategies will now be on display for rivals to study.

"There is definitely some out there with concern," Sandberg said during Facebook's announcement on Thursday. "Mainly concerns that their competitors are going to then see all of their ads, and just making it easier for their competitors to see what kind of ads they're running."

Also, publishers and media companies are concerned about falling under the rules about political ads, because it could tarnish their journalism to be associated with political advocacy. Facebook plans to include news reports about politics in its political ad archive if publishers pay to promote the articles.

Facebook decided last year it would reveal the source of every ad that runs on its platform, after discovering almost 500 Russian-affiliated groups that used deceptive means to buy ads during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. The foreign meddling was detected across social media, including Twitter and YouTube.

Groups were using fake identities to create fake pages and spread fake news by buying ads on Facebook and Twitter.

Also on Thursday, Twitter opened its "ad transparency center," which will also reveal all ads run by any brands or political organizations over a seven-day period. The political ads will be subjected to more extensive disclosures, such as what audiences the advertiser targeted.

At Facebook, the changes mean brands won't be able to rely any more on "dark posts," or testing an ad without posting it to their public-facing pages, so only target audiences see it. That was a popular strategy for refining ad messages out of public sight.

"We want to make sure that people understand what they're seeing, who paid for it, and the fullness of what other people might see," Sandberg said.

"We definitely let advertisers know this was incoming," she added. "I would say that the majority of them were very positive and that they understand why we are trying to get our platform to be more transparent. They stand behind the ads that they're putting up."

One set of advertisers is not as understanding: Publishers have been trying to get Facebook to rethink its policy of lumping their promoted news stories in with political ads.

A number of publishers pay to promote stories on Facebook, because it's the only way to ensure they reach a large audience there. Now, any news article that touches on political topics or issues will be labeled similar to political ads and be put in the ads archive.

Publishers and industry groups have been in tough talks with Sandberg and other Facebook executives about how their ads should be treated. Facebook has changed one key component to how media ads are treated, however, now putting them in a separate tab inside the ads archive to differentiate them from the other political ads.

That wasn't enough to eliminate publishers' concerns.

"I vehemently disagree that our journalism should be equated to political advertising or advertising that seeks to influence anyone with any political persuasion," says one top publishing executive at a media company that has frozen spending on promoting articles on Facebook.

News companies are concerned that Facebook's approach will make it harder for the public to discern between real journalism and political advocacy. There are some newspapers getting caught in the political category just for having "Democrat" or "Republican" in their names, even though those are legacy newspaper brands and not political affiliations, the publishing exec says, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the company's relationship with Facebook.

"We had a choice to make about how broad do you paint the transparency brush," Sandberg says. "There's lots of news articles that have political content in them."

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