Facebook, Google and Twitter shine light on campaign ads — but only so far

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By David Ingram

SAN FRANCISCO — A push this year by tech companies to open a window on the political ads that they sell has failed to satisfy lawmakers and researchers who worry that shadowy groups could still use the services to manipulate voters before an election.

Facebook, Google and Twitter all launched searchable databases this year that allow people to see details of election-related advertisements that run on theirs sites. People who visit the databases online can see videos and images from the ads, as well as spending data and, in theory, who is behind each of the ads.

The companies acted under threats of federal regulation after reports that Russian operatives bought politically divisive social media ads under fake names in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

But huge loopholes in the databases remain, lawmakers and researchers say.

Social media applications are seen on an iPhone 8 plus in this photo illustration on September 15, 2018 in Warsaw, Poland.
Jaap Arriens / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The flaws suggest that the companies’ efforts, while producing vast amounts of data, may not be enough to stave off action by Congress, state lawmakers or election regulators.

“We’re in a much better place now in terms of transparency than we were two years ago, but there is a long way to go,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for stricter campaign finance laws.

On Friday, two senators said they had sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, urging him to address loopholes in the social network’s archive of political ads.


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