Facebook Responds to OZY Investigation and Tightens Rules Against Political Proxies - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Facebook is strengthening its scrutiny of political advertisers after OZY's investigation exposed holes in its rules.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

  • Political advertisers unable to provide phone numbers, emails and websites where they can be reached — even after they’ve registered — will be barred, Facebook tells OZY.
  • But the social network has yet to address other key loopholes exposed by OZY’s investigation Wednesday, including how disclaimers disappear when shared.
  • Facebook’s hidden rules have helped amplify Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s messaging, and experts fear they could be misused ahead of the U.S. election too.

Facebook has decided to strengthen its scrutiny of political advertisers to make it harder for them to hide their true identities, the company said after an OZY investigation exposed how the tech giant’s hidden rules were aiding untraceable proxy spenders for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Three of India’s 10 biggest political spenders on Facebook, and eight of the top 60 since February 2019, are shadowy platforms amplifying Modi’s messaging and that of his Hindu nationalist BJP party. The addresses they shared with Facebook are either meaningless — one listed a highway — or overlap with those of other known entities, like the BJP’s national headquarters. And the advertisers are unreachable using the phone numbers they’ve provided to Facebook.

If we discover that the phone, email or website are no longer active or valid … they will no longer be able to use that disclaimer to run ads about social issues, elections or politics.

Facebook spokesperson

As our investigation showed, and Facebook confirmed, this was enabled by gaping holes in its transparency requirement from political advertisers that experts fear could also serve as a template for dubious spenders to exploit ahead of the November U.S. election. Spenders needed to be reachable on their listed phone numbers only “at the time” of their registration as political advertisers, according to the company, while the address needed only to be “mail deliverable.”

Facebook said it is now plugging some of those loopholes.

“If we discover that the phone, email or website are no longer active or valid, we will inform the advertiser to update them,” a company spokesperson told OZY on Thursday. “If they do not, they will no longer be able to use that disclaimer to run ads about social issues, elections or politics.”

Until this change, OZY’s investigation showed, a political advertiser could simply buy a SIM card, use that number to register with Facebook and then stop using that connection, becoming untraceable — without even violating the social giant’s rules.

“These are changes we have been exploring for some time and have made since your initial outreach,” the spokesperson said, before noting what she had told OZY in February when we first shared details of the dubious proxy advertisers with Facebook. “We are always looking at ways to strengthen the process.”

The eight biggest BJP proxies have spent $812,323 since February 2019, when Facebook started tracking these details. That’s 20 percent higher than the BJP’s own spend ($680,000). The shadowy advertisers have collectively posted 21,879 ads, compared to just 2,676 from the BJP.

“These are clearly bogus accounts,” S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India, told OZY. Quraishi oversaw some of the democratic world’s biggest-ever votes, by number of ballots cast, between 2010 and 2012. 

Some of that might now stop, with Facebook’s tighter norms. Indeed, Facebook has now taken down ads from five of the eight biggest pro-BJP proxy advertisers.

But it took the company six months after OZY originally flagged these problematic accounts to act. And the social media behemoth has yet to address other key problems revealed by our investigation. 

Take Nation With NaMo, one of the biggest pro-BJP spenders on Facebook. Its ads are still up even though its address matches that of the BJP’s office, an anomaly Facebook and the BJP have both failed to explain when asked. Is Nation With NaMo falsely portraying itself as operating from the BJP headquarters — in which case, why has the party not complained? Or is it actually just a front for the BJP, so as to reduce the campaign expenses the party needs to show — in which case, why has Facebook not acted against it?

“It’s very worrying,” said Prashant Bhushan, a senior lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court, who has authored multiple petitions seeking greater transparency in political funding. “Who is giving them the money?”

This opacity is something experts are seeing with Facebook in the U.S. too, where New York University professor Damon McCoy and his team have also found shady advertisers using the tech firm’s leaky rules.

Yet, as our investigation brought out for the first time, most Facebook users globally may never even know that a post is a sponsored ad to start with. Since 2018, Facebook has required all political advertisements to carry a disclaimer that they’re paid for or sponsored. But under its rules, that disclaimer disappears the moment the ad is shared — Facebook then treats it as “organic content.” Because of Facebook’s shares-based model of virality, political parties with troll armies capable of sharing political ads widely can easily obscure their paid-for nature to most readers.

That global rule too rails against Facebook’s transparency claims and could expose the platform to misuse during the U.S. election.

Yes, the company’s new steps to better track proxy advertisers are welcome. But it still has some distance to cover before it can regain the credibility that once positioned it as a champion of free speech against repressive regimes during the Arab Spring. November 2020 will be Facebook’s biggest test yet.

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