Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny over the last month as concerns over privacy and breached data have flooded news outlets around the country. Concerns over the privacy of user data and the unquestionable evidence that Russia interfered with our elections in November of 2016 have prompted an increased call for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to make himself available to Congress for questioning. During his hours of back and forth with members of Congress this week, surprisingly, Zuckerberg agreed that tighter and better regulation of political ads are necessary to prevent future election interference and thwart some privacy concerns among users.
Facebook and other tech giants already use identification and location verification programming for much of their online platforms – now they want to make it a part of the process required to run political or issue ads. Late last year, Facebook acknowledged that more than 3,000 ads were purchased by over 400 fake accounts. Most of these accounts were run by an organization called the Internet Research Agency, which was apparently nothing more than a poorly disguised Russian front out of St. Petersburg, Russia. The impact of these well placed ads have been devastating according to some sources that have closely followed the Russian attempt to meddle in our presidential election in November. The content from these ads supposedly impacted or touched 146 million Americans.
Based on the aforementioned impact to Americans, Democratic leaders of the Maryland General Assembly decided that Maryland could not wait to act. Legislation approved by the Democrat controlled chambers would require social media platforms across the board to track political ads and keep extensive records. The records would then be used by the State Board of Election so that officials could use the data to track bad actors or become aware of foreign interference. The legislation is being touted by many as being a national model for a way that other states can endeavor to fight back against bogus ads.
Shortly after the bill made its way through the legislative process in Annapolis, Facebook followed suit by implementing a similar internal policy nationwide in attempt to curb such abuses by those looking to undermine the credibility of our electoral system. According to Facebook executives working on state policy, they were very involved in the drafting of the Maryland law. Will Castlebury, Facebook’s vice president for state policy, said, “We believe this bill will be a national model for the other 49 states to follow.” State Senator Craig Zucker added, “This will transform how online ads are purchased.”
Democratic leaders agree that Maryland needed to get ahead of the curve and be a leader regarding protecting the ballot box but also holding online platforms accountable to the public and their individual users. The Maryland law would apply to both campaign and issue ads, as both were used with great frequency. Some pushback has come from newspapers, who have argued against provisions in the bill that would require social media platforms and newspapers to post quickly public information about who purchased the advertisements, whom they benefit and how much was spent – which is similar to laws on the books already for TV stations.
In the end, Maryland Democratic legislators felt good about the work done to protect elections but also the privacy of the many users of the platforms across the state.