- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2018

Facebook’s latest effort to improve online political ad transparency has fallen short, and the embattled social media giant must adhere to the same requirements as those sold for TV and radio, leading Senate Democrats said Friday, just days before the midterm elections.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota, and Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia, also the Senate Intelligence committee’s top Democrat, have been leading proponents of better regulating online media political ads in the wake of Russian meddling during the 2016 election.

On Friday, their offices publicly released a letter they sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hammering his firm for failing to improve transparency regarding campaign ads that run on the site, which boasts billions of users.

“Reports indicate that Facebook’s new security tools allow users to intentionally misidentify who purchases political ads on your platform,” the senators said. “We write to express concern about significant apparent loopholes in Facebook’s ads transparency tool and to urge you to promptly address this issue.”

Separately on Friday, Russian hackers were found to be selling private messages from 81,000 Facebook accounts, according to a BBC investigation.

The messages were posted on a forum popular with hackers and were on sale for 8 pence (10 cents) per profile.

Facebook executives denied hackers gained access to its servers. Instead, they blamed the breach on users who have installed malicious web browser extensions that can store private messages.

The news is the latest blow in a long series of events that have shredded the credibility of Facebook and other social media behemoths, including Google and Twitter.

The firms have been wrestling to restore credibility after evidence surfaced that they were awash in Kremlin propaganda in 2016. Facebook also faced a massive data scandal involving the British firm Cambridge Analytica.

Much of the problem, cyber security analysts say, is that social media companies had no clear rules to identify who purchased what ads — largely because the laws governing their industry are woefully outdated.

To fight back, Facebook recently unveiled a tool that requires the buyers of political ads to verify their identification and U.S. addresses before purchasing a spot.

But earlier this week, Vice News published a story about their reporters’ experiences buying political ads on Facebook.

The reporters followed the transparency tool’s new rules and verified their identification and U.S. addresses. However, once they were verified, the reporters found they could post divisive ads and lie about who paid for them — the very same problem the service had in 2016 with Russian-bought ads.

Earlier this year, Mr. Zuckerberg appeared before multiple congressional committees and pledged that his firm would improve political advertising oversight.

He argued that the company was increasing its use of artificial intelligence to better police the ads — a controversial issue given that critics of AI say the task of scrutinizing ads and who buys them remains beyond the current technology’s capabilities.

Mr. Warner and Ms. Klobuchar, who have pushed legislation to improve disclosure requirements for online political ads, called the Honest Ads Act, noted in their letter that “major gaps existing in Facebook’s transparency tool could allow adversaries to exploit the platform with continued disinformation efforts.”

The senators added that the problem points “to a central vulnerability that enable these kinds of ads: Facebook’s failure to utilize human reviewers of the political ads it sells.”

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