Rob Leathern, Facebook's director of business integrity, is one of the social network's more vocal exponents when it comes to the company’s much-maligned policy decisions around political ads and speech on the service.
He can often be found on Twitter pushing back against Facebook’s critics and defending its decisions in real-time. And there's plenty for Leathern to explain, too, as the 2020 presidential election heats up. Facebook is still stinging from 2016 when it, Twitter, Google and other services became hotbeds of foreign disinformation campaigns meant to steer U.S. public opinion.
Already ahead of 2020, Facebook has taken heat from Democratic candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren, who called for the social network to remove deceptive political ads. Facebook’s response was essentially, “Who decides what’s a lie?” Then there are rivals like Twitter, which just outlined a policy that bans all political ads. (Ah, but who decides what's a political ad? There will still be issues-based ads on Twitter, but none that push candidates or legislation.) Also, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel came out this week to chime in with how his service allows political ads but he emphasized that the ads are “fact-checked.”
Ad Age caught up with Leathern by phone on Tuesday to ask him where Facebook stands on the political ads front. Here’s that conversation with edits for clarity:
How is Facebook thinking about its political ads policy these days?
There’s three main areas that we think about: fighting foreign interference, increasing transparency and reducing misinformation.
On the fighting foreign interference front, we’re requiring advertisers who are running ads that are about social issues, elections or politics to go through our authorization process. We’re doing a lot of work to combat inauthentic behavior. Recently, we took down some operations from Russia and Iran that we saw on the platform.
The other thing, which we haven’t talked about as much, but I also think is interesting and important, is protecting the accounts of elected officials candidates and others on their teams through Facebook Protect.
On the transparency side, this has obviously been a big focus, which is making ads and pages more transparent. We’re showing people the confirmed owners of pages. We’re launching the labeling of state-controlled media. We’re continuing to evolve our ad library to make it easier to understand political ads.
You identified Russian and Iranian fake accounts already this cycle. How have the tactics evolved from the last election?
Some of them were focused on the U.S., some of them were focused on other areas like North Africa. One of the things we’ve seen with this kind of activity has been the use of fake accounts. But also compromised accounts. A lot of this comes down to pretending to be local folks driving people to domains off platform.
We want to share as much information as we can about these kinds of operations. That being said some of them do pertain to things that are still in progress. There is coordination with law enforcement, other folks, and we have to make sure we have those all lined up.
Twitter now bans just about all political ads. You’ve taken a different approach. Why?
I won’t talk specifically about the decisions other companies are making. I can talk a little bit about how we think about political ads and social issue ads. When it comes to issue ads obviously there’s a challenge about where to draw the line. Things that mention candidates or an election campaign are clearly political, but there are a lot of ads that are about highly politicized issues: health care, veterans services, climate change, other areas. We think it’s important to take kind of a broad approach here.
We also have to give people a place to express their voice. It’s not just about the presidential and well-known candidates, but it’s also about the local, little-known or new candidates that don’t typically have access to the same kind of media, the same kinds of ways to get their message out there.
We think that if we stopped running political ads on our services then the people who would really benefit are going to be the incumbents and established politicians, the newcomers would not benefit. Challengers don’t have the ability to spend $60,000 to produce a TV ad, let alone the media costs of running it.
Why not ban negative ads?
We have been working to even just identify what are political ads and what are social issue ads. It’s a challenging technical problem to identify these ads, which we’ve gotten a lot better at and continue to improve. We’re going to continue to miss things, but I think we’re getting better at just identifying social issues and political ads. But going to the next point of identifying what is a negative ad and what’s not, that’s also just a difficult technical challenge, and we’re definitely focused on the first part of that, identifying political ads.
What about banning political action committees or Super PACs from advertising?
We’re taking a broad approach here. One of the things that we’ve done is continue to expand and improve our authorization process. We require folks to provide more information. We confirm more information about the entities behind these ads. For example, if they are a committee that is registered with the Federal Election Commission they can connect that profile to our system and all of that information shows up in the ad library.
What if you gave opposing candidates the ability to target the same exact people so they can deliver dueling messages?
One of the values of having the transparency of who is reached, which is available in the ad library, is to make it clear what audiences are seeing the message. So age, gender, demographics and location provide that mechanism. There’s a number of different outputs that could come from transparency, and one could be that other campaigns look and see who they think they should be reaching, if they want to counter a certain message.
You're pretty outspoken online. Do you have a free pass from your bosses to speak your mind on Twitter?
I think it’s important to engage with reporters directly. I’ve been in the ads business for a while and these issues are important, the work that we’re doing I think is important to put into context. I want to make sure people understand that if they see a bad ad or see something that shouldn’t be there, we take that seriously. I also know that we make mistakes. I want to be able to, when possible, it’s not always possible, to put those things in context and engage with folks directly.