Facebook has been criticized in the past for its creepy advertisements and privacy violations. Now, the social media empire is reversing course and taking action to preserve privacy — for its advertisers. Recently, Facebook sent a letter to the FEC, requesting exemption from disclosure requirements for campaign ads posted on the website. Federal law requires that any political advertisement disclose its source of payment. However, given the ads’ small size and the limited space available, Facebook is asking to be released from this obligation. Facebook supported Google in making a similar request several years ago, which the FEC granted.
There are certainly reasons to support such a measure. Facebook advertisements are often less than a square inch in size; to devote space to disclosure requirements is very inconvenient. Further, it can be unnecessary, as many of these ads will simply be a candidate’s name and slogan, with an embedded link to their website.
At the same time there are reasons to be concerned. While many political ads on Facebook will just be banners and links, the potential for negative advertising still remains. And even though space is limited, it doesn’t take much to start a rumor; a few choice words targeted to the correct demographic can quickly escalate into a major news story based upon misinformation. Taking away disclosure requirements removes accountability to those who would propagate such smear tactics, and limits our ability to assess the accuracy of facts by examining the source presenting them.
Even beyond the case at hand, Facebook’s request creates two serious concerns.
The first is expansion. If Facebook is able to attain exemption from the disclosure requirement on the basis of inconvenience, where do we draw the line? What about slightly larger print advertisements that go in newspapers and magazines? What about television spots, many of which only last for 30 seconds and are forced to devote 5 seconds of time to a disclosure requirement? Perhaps more troubling than these questions is the fact that the FEC is answering them without public oversight or consideration of the goals of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. At a time of unprecedented corporate influence on our elections system, this is certainly a cause for concern.
The second is the prospect for new disclosure requirements. Facebook is one of several Web 2.0 innovations – along with Twitter and YouTube – that is rapidly becoming a major media source for campaigns, with comparable influence to television in reaching out to voters. But because they are free media sources, there are currently no disclosure requirements, creating the potential for abuse. Campaigns’ use of new media requires reform, yet Facebook’s letter signals that the company will be resistant to the prospect of oversight and regulation. And with Facebook quietly moving to increase its political influence, this is a serious cause for concern as well.