April 11, 2018 By Zak Mehan
Mark Zuckerberg is headed to Washington this week to testify about Facebook’s protection of customer data in front of Congress, but the company is already moving forward with some major changes meant to increase transparency surrounding the advertising process.
Facebook is changing the scope of what it considers to be a political ad and ramping up the verification process. Going forward, any advertisers purchasing “issue ads” will be required to verify both their identity and their location. The format of these ads will change as well, with clear labeling noting who paid for the ads. The company will also be releasing a public political ads database, which will provide information about the text, image, spend and target demographic of every advertisement.
This push for greater transparency should come as no surprise given increased scrutiny surrounding advertising on social media (just this week news broke that Facebook had suspended another company using tactics similar to Cambridge Analytica). But what remains to be seen is how exactly these changes will manifest.
What constitutes an “issue ad” has yet to be clearly defined by Facebook. The company notes in their blog post announcing the changes that they’re largely concerned with “political topics that are being debated across the country” and that they’re “working with third parties to develop a list of key issues, which we will refine over time.”
Companies and organizations who depend on Facebook advertising to educate stakeholders about industry-wide topics will want to keep a close eye on how the company ends up defining “issues.” As Facebook works to rebuild trust in the wake of recent negative coverage, it’s likely it will take a “better safe than sorry” approach to what type of content is flagged as political in nature.
What’s more, the push for transparency could soon no longer be up to the discretion of individual companies. Zuckerberg himself has voiced support for the Honest Ads Act, which would bring the process surrounding political advertising online more in line with broadcast television requirements. If that legislation moves forward, expect to see even more dramatic changes across the social media landscape.
It’s clear that the increased scrutiny surrounding how social media companies are using our data won’t abate anytime soon, as a flurry of headlines surrounding YouTube’s handling of children’s data proved this week. On Monday, a group of 20 advocacy groups asked the FTC to investigate YouTube for violating a law that requires companies to obtain parental consent before collecting data on children under the age of 13 – the Child Online Privacy Protection Act.
The coalition alleges that Google is knowingly harvesting data from under-age users – including phone numbers and location – and is calling for changes in how the platform manages content. They’ve also asked YouTube to pay up to $41,484 per violation, which would add up to billions if they FTC moves forward with the fines.
While YouTube’s terms of service say the platform is not for use by anyone under the age of 13, anyone can watch YouTube videos without an account or logging in. Additionally, research confirms that despite these terms of service, the age requirements have done little to deter under-age users from creating accounts – 45% of kids between the ages of 8 and 12 have accounts.
How the FTC handles this complaint remains to be seen, but we’ll add this to the (very long) list of data-related events likely to lead to broader reform.
Social media platforms are constantly trying to think of ways to keep users engaged – hence the myriad of algorithm updates and platform redesigns we’ve seen over the years. While some users welcome change, we’d say that if SnapChat, Facebook, and Twitter have taught us anything, it’s that people are not always enthused when their social media platforms change on them.
Enter Reddit. The platform, which boasts nearly 330 million users around the world, has hardly changed since it first introduced subreddits a decade ago in 2008. But the platform has recently introduced new view options, updated scrolling features and a new post editor – all with an eye towards making the notoriously esoteric Reddit friendlier to newcomers. The rollout has only been introduced to one percent of users, surprisingly without the backlash we’ve seen surrounding other platform redesigns (and Redditors, as a group, aren’t known for keeping their opinions to themselves).
Only time will tell if people are actually happy with the redesign once the changes have rolled out to more users, but it seems that Reddit’s transparency surrounding the changes has played a key role in keeping users happy throughout the transition. But perhaps even more important is that Reddit has included an option that allows people to revert back to the original format. For better or for worse, Reddit plays a key role in defining internet culture. Shifting the platform to be more user-friendly could certainly add to the platform’s influence (assuming the rollout continues to go smoothly).
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