zuckerberg-europe-may-2018.jpg
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (left) with EU parliament president Antonio Tajani in May 2018. (Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock)

Despite all the political hurdles that Facebook has encountered since the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and all the work that it says it has put into restoring users' trust and protecting their private data, stories keep emerging about the company's continual difficulties with verifying the people and content on its platform.

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Beyond Facebook's data breaches affecting tens of millions of users, and failures to properly identify its advertisers, professor and data journalist Jonathan Albright of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reports that the way Facebook handles Page administration and monitoring continues to be problematic. One issue is that once a Page is approved, its administrator can hand over control to other people without oversight from Facebook.

Albright says, "Some of these Pages reported significant changes to their total number of manager accounts and the locations of those accounts at the same time they ran targeted domestic political ad campaigns." And once a Page has been approved, "Facebook does not appear to have a rigid protocol in place to regularly monitor Pages running political campaigns after the initial verification takes place" (emphasis original).

According to Albright, a substantial number of these "foreign managers" also ran possible data-mining campaigns in the form of user polls that were "sponsored posts asking their target audiences, in this case American Facebook users, to respond to questions about their ideologies and moral outlooks."

Albright identifies specific Pages in his report, such as the one for Liftable, which has been managed by no fewer than 100 accounts located in seven different countries.

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All examples cited in his report are of conservative-leaning Pages, to which he says, "I looked at several hundred political Pages on Facebook and did not find any left-leaning, or 'liberal,' pages that had the same kinds of issues. Of course, this does not mean that they do not exist; there are almost certainly similar cases to be found with left-leaning Facebook Pages."

Albright's three-month search analyzed 250,000 posts and 5,000 political ads. He concludes that the tools Facebook offers users to validate an ad or a Page "offer no real basis for evaluation" and that there's no way for the average user to see what responsibilities each Page administrator has, or the time frames in which each one has operated.

Instead, Facebook lists only the administrator's country of origin, and how many people from that country are currently running that Page. Given that political ads on the internet are unregulated (unlike television and radio) the opportunities for malfeasance are much greater on a social network than they are in older mediums of communication.

Takeaways

  • A professor and data researcher investigated a cross-section of Facebook's political Pages and advertisements and concluded that there were serious flaws in how the company monitors changes in Page administration, and potentially data-mining polls conducted on these Pages.
  • All examples cited in his report were of conservative-leaning Pages; the researcher says that he looked at several hundred left-leaning Pages and did not find these issues.

Also see

Tom McNamara is a Senior Editor for CNET's Download.com. He mainly covers Windows, mobile and desktop security, games, Google, streaming services, and social media. Tom was also an editor at Maximum PC and IGN, and his work has appeared on CNET, PC Gamer, MSN.com, and Salon.com. He's also unreasonably proud that he's kept the same phone for more than two years.