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Meta Platforms’ Facebook will Remove Detailed Ad Targeting Options; The Filter Bubble Transparency Act Pending in Congress

There have been two major developments on the “disinformation and influence campaign” front.

First, Meta Platforms just announced that they will be removing certain ad targeting options and expanding our ad controls: “Starting January 19, 2022, we will remove detailed targeting options that relate to topics people may perceive as sensitive, such as options referencing causes, organizations, or public figures that relate to health, race or ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, or sexual orientation. Examples include:

  • Health causes (e.g., “Lung cancer awareness”, “World Diabetes Day”, “Chemotherapy”)
  • Sexual orientation (e.g., “same-sex marriage” and “LGBT culture”)
  • Religious practices and groups (e.g., “Catholic Church” and “Jewish holidays”)
  • Political beliefs, social issues, causes, organizations, and figures”

This is the most substantial platform functionality change the social media company has taken to address the capabilities of advertisers for manipulation, disinformation, and influence campaigns on the platform. The new policy, according to Axios, “Will apply to all of the apps owned by Meta, including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook’s Audience Network.”

The Question Remains:  Does Facebook Have a Positive Impact on the World?

While these developments are encouraging, Facebook/Meta is still generating negative global headlines, like How Facebook Is Stoking a Civil War in Ethiopia, in which Vice’s Nick Robins-Early reports: “Even in Ethiopia—which Facebook has designated its highest risk level and repeatedly made assurances it is dedicating resources to monitoring—researchers and journalists say that hate is still spreading unabated, and the platform is stoking ethnic and political conflict. ‘People criticize them for how little they do in the U.S.,’ said Timnit Gebru, Google’s former chief AI ethicist. ‘Imagine elsewhere: What we’re talking about is them doing absolutely nothing, as far as I’m concerned.’”

Rest of the World, an international nonprofit journalism organization, also recently reported on Why the rest of the world shrugged at the Facebook Papers: “Very little of what I have read about the [Facebook] papers comes as a surprise,” says Colombian journalist José Luis Peñarredonda, the audience editor at the Latin American Center for Journalistic Investigation.

Even in this severe climate of unwelcome news for the company, the decision by Meta to eliminate this ad targeting functionality took into serious consideration the positive impact of these ad targeting functions – and considered advocacy from organizations arguing for the positive aspects of these ad targeting capabilities and arguing against their elimination from the platform:

“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations. Some of our advertising partners have expressed concerns about these targeting options going away because of their ability to help generate positive societal change, while others understand the decision to remove them. Like many of our decisions, this was not a simple choice and required a balance of competing interests where there was advocacy in both directions. We feel confident that we can evolve our ads system to meet the needs of everyone we serve while working diligently to continue supporting one of the best things about our platforms — helping people connect with and discover the businesses and organizations they care about.”

Internal culture at Meta also reflects this tension and cognitive dissonance, as only half the Facebook employees polled in an October 2021 internal survey said yes when asked does Facebook have a positive impact on the world?

The Filter Bubble Transparency Act and Input-Transparent Algorithms

The second interesting development is a bill that was introduced into the House last week – which is a House version of a bill that has been languishing in the Senate since November 2019. The Senate bill was re-introduced in June of this year by the same members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has authority over the internet and consumer protection, who were grilling a Facebook whistleblower in early October.  As the announcement from the Office of Senator Thune of South Dakota stated back in June:

“U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.) today introduced the Filter Bubble Transparency Act. The bill would require large-scale internet platforms that collect data from more than 1 million users and gross more than $50 million per year to provide greater transparency to consumers and allow users to view content that has not been curated as a result of a secret algorithm. The Filter Bubble Transparency Act would make it easier for internet platform users to understand the potential manipulation that exists with secret algorithms and require large-scale platforms to allow those users to consume information outside of that potential manipulation zone or “filter bubble.”

At the center of the Senate and House legislation is a working definition of an input-transparent algorithm: “an algorithmic ranking system that does not use the user-specific data of a user to determine the order or manner that information is furnished to such user on a covered internet platform unless the user-specific data is expressly provided to the platform by the user for such purpose.”

What Next?

For now, what is encouraging is that Meta finally made a tough choice and followed through with a formal policy announcement and a commitment to the elimination of harmful functionality by early next year. This approach will have positive impacts on the information ecosystem in the U.S.

Also encouraging is the solutions-based approach offered by the Filter Bubble Transparency Act.  Gone are the days of technology executives testifying before a Congress asking rudimentary questions (prepared by their younger staffers no doubt) which reflected an apparent lack of understanding about how the internet, Facebook, and targeting advertising even worked. It is encouraging to see legislation which reflects a deep understanding of the problem and presents a solution as interesting as an input-transparent algorithm. There is real legislative movement here, which–if passed- would undoubtedly impact the future effectiveness of  Russian Kompromat in the U.S. and other disinformation campaigns by the likes of Iran, North Korea, and China.

It is not clear whether this legislation will get to the President’s desk during this legislative session, as it competes with efforts for passage of the social infrastructure bill, which seems to be taking up all the oxygen in the room in Washington.

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.