Thursday, 24 October 2019
For 15 years I have been a Facebook user. I was an early adopter, having studied at the university where Facebook was originally founded. Like many Australians I find Facebook a terrific way of staying in touch with friends and with constituents. But Facebook has also been involved in more than its fair share of scandals. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed huge amounts of personal data leaked to third parties. In Myanmar Facebook played a troubling role in the genocide of Rohingya Muslims. We've seen the use of Facebook by Russian troll accounts attempting to influence the United States election. We've seen, even post Cambridge Analytica, reports that data had been leaked to third parties from Facebook. And in the most recent Australian election, Facebook was used as a platform to disseminate misinformation, by not only political parties, but also actors associated with them.
The Joint Standing Committee into Electoral Matters is currently examining these issues, and Facebook has made a recent submission to them about the actions that it has taken to curtail false information being advertised on its platform. But what Facebook has not yet done is to extend the same level of transparency for Australian political advertisements as it does for advertisements in other countries. Facebook's Ad Library, launched last year in the United States, provides a great deal of detail about political advertisements. A user can see whether they're active or inactive, when they started running and whether it's currently running, if they've been approved or disapproved, the number of impressions, the amount spent, the demographics of the targeting by age and gender, and the locations where the advertisement was shown. The Facebook Ad Library also produces reports showing the estimated amount spent by each advertiser, the total amount of ads the advertiser has in the library, the total amount spent in a particular week, weekly top search terms and the top advertiser spend in a region or country. The Ad Library archives advertisements for a period of seven years. In Britain, individuals posting a political ad need some form of official identification, such as a driving licence, and a valid UK address before being allowed to post a paid ad.
These provisions in the Ad Library apply to Brazil, Canada, the European Union, India, Israel, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States. But that level of detail is not available in the Ad Library covering Australia. I call on Facebook to create an Ad Library for Australia providing the same level of granular detail as currently exists for the United States. As a Guardian report prior to the election noted:
While the ad library currently contains Australian content, only current ads are viewable, and to find them you need to know which page is running the ad. In the UK or US the archive shows political ads even after they are no longer active, and it is possible to search political ads by topic or keyword, which is not possible for Australian content.
Lest it be thought that I'm picking on Facebook, I believe that such transparency should also apply to other platforms—major platforms such as Google, its affiliate YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and the like. Australians should be able to see what political advertisements are being run on these platforms. Australians have a right to know what misinformation is being propagated. Facebook should not allow itself to become a platform for propagating mistruths.
Facebook has announced that in the upcoming US census it will not allow posts to be shown that contain clear misinformation that aims to deter Americans from participating in the census. This is the right thing to do and, in so doing, Facebook has acknowledged that there is a line between true and false; it's not all just relative. If they can do that with the US census, they should be able to do that with false advertisements in the Australian political context. Politics should be a contest of ideas, not a war of falsehoods. I call on Facebook and other social media platforms to do the right thing.