Tech

Report: Facebook's political ad system is wide open to attacks and disinformation tactics

Which will likely surprise Facebook, and only Facebook.

Artwork of business man surrounded by anonymous masks. Conceptual vector illustration of imposed opinion of people around.
Shutterstock

Come May 2020, the audience at the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, will hear in great detail about Facebook's grossly inadequate political ad monitoring system. Data scientists at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering recently published their assessment of Mark Zuckerberg's company's political ad policies, dating back to 2018, noting they've got a long way to go before they can be deemed credible.

In spite of Zuckerberg's frequent — and rather awkward — trips to Capitol Hill, where he's repeatedly assured elected officials that his social media ecosystem is not a ticking time bomb ripe for manipulation, the researchers warn that Facebook's strategy for monitoring and tracking political ads has "systemic flaws."

Follow the money — Data scientists found that those who wanted to could easily engage in disinformation tactics and obscure funding sources if they so wished. The researchers found a whopping $37 million in ads — which made up 55 percent of the pages they studied for the paper — didn't reveal where they received funding from. Which is worrying generally, but especially so in an election year.

Micro-targeting continues — The research, which used machine learning and manual inspections, found that bad-faith advertisers could easily micro-target users based on their race, gender, veteran status, and even union membership. A worrying 19,536 ads — worth at least $3.86 million — fell into this category.

Additional key findings — Facebook's response to these inauthentic ads was remarkably slow, taking an average of 210 days to shut such content down. Shady and unregistered businesses named "TrumpCare" and "Heroes Home Buyers Program" ran freely on the platform, and were displayed most often to users in the Midwest and Rust Belt. Clickbaity titles and ads ran without administrative checks and Facebook also failed repeatedly to confirm the accuracy of citations in political ads.

The study won't surprise anyone remotely familiar with Facebook's ad policies, which effectively boil down to "if it pays, it plays." But it also demonstrates the importance of independent assessments from impartial third-parties. Because self-regulation never works. We can't expect those with skin in the game to worry too much about the rules. That's just now how rapacious capitalism works.