Facebook has promised to cut out fake ads on its platform for the Irish abortion referendum by fast-tracking a new ad-transparency tool it has developed.
The move means that Ireland will get the new feature on April 25, ahead of the US, where Facebook has faced substantial criticism for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The feature will show information about political ads related to both sides of the referendum campaign.
Further features to be rolled out ahead of the next Irish general election will also include more advanced information on political ads, including details of how many people were reached and a searchable database of political ads and advertisers.
Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, told a joint Oireachtas Committee on communications today that the new tool would try to cut out “foreign interference” in the abortion referendum.
Campaigning groups from both sides of the referendum debate have been briefed on the Facebook tool.
The joint Oireachtas Committee was also set to discuss the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill 2017.
Facebook has received intense criticism in recent weeks for the way that user data was inappropriately shared on its platform. Its founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, apologised last week for a scandal which saw a British political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, illicitly use the data of up to 87m people in a targeted political campaign to help elect Donald Trump in 2016.
Mr Kaplan also apologised to the Joint Oireachtas Committee for what had happened.
“We are deeply sorry,” he said. “What happened with Cambridge Analytica represents a huge violation of trust.”
He also said that Facebook has had increased interaction with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner’s office.
“The Data Protection Commissioner has been critical of us in recent weeks,” said Mr Kaplan. ”We recognise and understand those criticisms. We could have done better in responding to concerns, and we are committed to doing better going forward.”
The Facebook delegation to the Oireachtas Committee was headed by Mr Kaplan and Niamh Sweeney, Facebook’s head of public policy in Ireland.
The Irish data protection commissioner, Helen Dixon, also addressed the Committee on recent events.
The social networking giant has also said that it is to deploy new artificial intelligence tools that target “fake accounts spreading misinformation” in the upcoming abortion referendum.
These tools will seek to root out “fake” profiles and pages planted by agent provocateurs that try to disrupt the referendum with disinformation.
Examples of accounts deemed fake include those from the Russian Internet Research Agency, which Facebook says created bogus Facebook accounts that were seen by 127m people in the last two years.
Facebook has over 2m people in Ireland using its platform every day.
"We believe that when you visit a page or see an ad on Facebook, it should be clear who it's coming from," said a company statement about the new political ad tools.
"We also think it's important for people to be able to see the other ads a page is running, even if they're not directed at you. Advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location," to become authorised, the company said.
"Advertisers will be prohibited from running political ads - electoral or issue-based - until they are authorised."
The company says that it has formed a working relationship with Transparency Referendum Initiative, a voluntary organisation set up to monitor online activity in the upcoming referendum. It has also promised to work with campaigners on both sides of the referendum on transparency issues.
Under the new ad transparency system, Irish users can see all ads an advertiser is running on Facebook at the same time, even if those ads are not in the user’s own news feed.
Facebook users can click on the advertiser’s Page, select ‘About’ and scroll to ‘View Active Ads’ where they will see all of the ads that Page is running on Facebook.
“This update is designed to help ensure users have the information needed to assess all ads on Facebook including political and issue ads,” said the company in a statement.
“Every advertiser who wants to run political or issue ads will need to be verified,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a recent post about the ad transparency tools.
“To get verified, advertisers will need to confirm their identity and location. Any advertiser who doesn't pass will be prohibited from running political or issue ads. We will also label them and advertisers will have to show you who paid for them.
“For even greater political ads transparency, we have also built a tool that lets anyone see all of the ads a page is running. We're also creating a searchable archive of past political ads.
“We will also require people who manage large pages to be verified as well. This will make it much harder for people to run pages using fake accounts, or to grow virally and spread misinformation or divisive content that way.”
“In order to require verification for all of these pages and advertisers, we will hire thousands of more people. We're committed to getting this done in time for the critical months before the 2018 elections. These steps by themselves won't stop all people trying to game the system. But they will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads. Election interference is a problem that's bigger than any one platform. This will help raise the bar for all political advertising online.”
The political ads initiative comes as campaigners on both sides of the abortion referendum prepare for a bitter contest on social media, with accusations of dirty tricks already underway.
Earlier this month, a pro-choice Facebook page called ‘In Her Shoes’ claimed that it received hundreds of one-star reviews in a short period in what it called an organised attempt by pro-life opponents to restrict its content.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the ‘Love Both’ campaign said that pro-life groups were wary of Facebook introducing “censorship” during the referendum campaign.
“If Facebook does start to monitor things you’d have to generally welcome that,” said Cora Sherlock. “But that comes with a strong caveat that any type of monitoring doesn’t descend into censorship.”
Facebook has already taken action on activity related to the upcoming referendum, removing a feature that wrongly suggested pro-choice Facebook users had “donated” to a pro-life Facebook page.
“Within our Facebook Fundraisers tool, we had a feature to show people that their friends had previously supported a fundraiser,” said a Facebook Ireland spokeswoman.
“We learned that the placement of this content could be confusing and appeared to connect people to a cause they did not directly support. We’ve turned off this product feature globally and we’re sorry for any confusion that it caused.”
However, Facebook says that it won’t try to engage in fact-checking exercises on content posted to Facebook by individuals or media organisations, for fear of curtailing free speech.
The Referendum Commission says that it does not monitor social media during campaigns.
Separately, a spokeswoman for Facebook said that the company’s new building in Dublin’s North Wall area is already approaching capacity, with almost 800 people located there. The company is quickly running out of space in Dublin, with a doubling of its size to almost 3,000 people in the last 18 months.