One of Facebook’s major efforts to add transparency to political advertisements is a required “Paid for by” disclosure at the top of each ad supposedly telling users who is paying for political ads that show up in their news feeds.
But on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, a VICE News investigation found the “Paid for by” feature is easily manipulated and appears to allow anyone to lie about who is paying for a political ad, or to pose as someone paying for the ad.
To test it, VICE News applied to buy fake ads on behalf of all 100 sitting U.S. senators, including ads “Paid for by” by Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer. Facebook’s approvals were bipartisan: All 100 sailed through the system, indicating that just about anyone can buy an ad identified as “Paid for by” by a major U.S. politician.
What’s more, all of these approvals were granted to be shared from pages for fake political groups such as “Cookies for Political Transparency” and “Ninja Turtles PAC.” VICE News did not buy any Facebook ads as part of the test; rather, we received approval to include “Paid for by” disclosures for potential ads.
This comes after a VICE News test conducted last week, where we received approval to run political ads posing as Vice President Mike Pence, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, and the Islamic State group. An attempt to place an ad posing as Hillary Clinton was denied. At the time, Facebook said those ad disclosures should not have been approved.
But these tests show that compliance with the feature is entirely voluntary, meaning a tool that Facebook introduced to increase trust in advertising can also be used as a vector for misinformation, and another way bad actors can game Facebook’s platform.