Facebook to verify election ad buyers by snail mail

Facebook’s come up with a way to avoid being used by the Russians like a tinkertoy in the upcoming US mid-term elections: snail mailed postcards.

Katie Harbath, Facebook’s global director of policy programs, described the plan to verify political ad buyers at a conference held by the National Association of Secretaries of State over the weekend. She didn’t say when the program would start, but she did tell Reuters that it would be before the congressional midterms in November.

The unveiling of the plan, which is meant to verify ad buyers and their locations, came a day after Robert S. Mueller III filed an indictment describing a Russian conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. It alleges that 13 Russians and three Russian companies conducted a criminal and espionage conspiracy using social media to pump up Donald Trump and to vilify Hillary Clinton.

Lawmakers, security experts and election integrity watchdog groups have been dissecting the social network’s failure to detect Russia’s use of Facebook and other social media platforms, including Twitter and Google, and its sluggishness in dealing with its fake news problem.

Facebook isn’t the only media outlet to turn to nice, flat, analog paper to try to keep Russians from meddling in the 2018 election.

As the Boston Globe reported on Monday, state election officials around the country are hoping to use paper ballots for voting, to evade the Russian hacking attacks aimed at the US e-voting system.

For their part, online platforms were beset by a swarm of meddling aimed at influencing the 2016 US presidential election: the Russian troll farm that infiltrated Twitter, the fake social media accounts, the fake news they planted, and the rallies they sponsored to sow discord.

…and then there are the advertisements that Russian conspirators purchased to promote their posts and those rallies. Facebook has cited 10 million US users who saw Kremlin-purchased ads. But there were far more who saw Russia-backed posts. According to the company’s prepared testimony, submitted to the Senate judiciary committee before hearings at the end of October, Russia-backed Facebook posts actually reached 126 million Americans during the US election.

According to Mueller’s indictment, Facebook ads for a “Florida Goes Trump” rally reached more than 59,000 users and were clicked on by more than 8,300.

That was just one out of eight rallies mentioned in the indictment.

All of this grilling, criticism and introspection has pushed Facebook to snap out of its once lackadaisical attitude. For example, there was founder Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to suggestions that misleading/misinformative Facebook posts influenced the outcome of the election: a reaction that was basically a shrug. It was a “pretty crazy idea,” he said, though he later conceded that he’d been unduly dismissive.

Wired has an excellent piece regarding 1) the tumult at Facebook over the past two years, as it’s slowly come to realize that it’s not a benevolent jeans-as-dress-code Silicon Valley do-gooder company but is, rather, a powerful platform that yes, has the ability to be used to influence opinions, even change the course of an election, and 2) how Mark Zuckerberg is now planning to fix it all.

To fix the problem of not knowing who in the world is buying ads or promotion of posts, Harbath said that Facebook will send postcards that contain a code required for advertising purchases that mention a specific candidate running for a federal office. The process won’t be required to buy issue-based political ads, she said.

Reuters quoted her:

If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States.

It won’t solve everything.

No, it won’t solve everything, but it was the best that Facebook could come up with, she said.