Classroom connection: New transparency measures at Google, Facebook


Both Facebook and Google have announced new transparency measures intended to give users more information about who is behind the posts and ads they see. In an April 22 Facebook Newsroom post, Anita Joseph and Georgina Sheedy-Collier, product managers for Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook), said that the platforms will be providing “the location of high-reach Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts on every post they share.” The following day, John Canfield, Google’s director of product management and ad integrity announced that beginning this summer, the company will require all advertisers on its platforms — including those using the Google AdSense program, which places targeted ads on almost 11 million websites across the internet — to provide “information that proves who they are and the country in which they operate.”

Joseph and Sheedy-Collier said that the new feature would be piloted in the United States, starting with “Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts that are based outside the US but reach large audiences based primarily in the US,” though they didn’t specifically define what was meant by “high-reach.” Canfield said that Google would start by verifying information for advertisers in the United States before expanding the program worldwide, noting that that this initiative would take years to complete.

The world’s largest social media company and the world’s most popular search engine have introduced a variety of measures to improve transparency since their platforms were used by state-sponsored disinformation agents seeking to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election (PDF).

Take note

Despite an announcement by Facebook in February that it had banned ads for products that claim to cure or prevent COVID-19, and a post from its chairman and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, on April 16 stating that “harmful misinformation” about COVID-19 will be taken down, two investigations last week found evidence that neither of these policies is being consistently enforced. An April 23 report in The Markup discovered that Facebook’s Ads Manager — which makes it easy for advertisers to target extremely specific groups of users — offered an audience segment of people interested in pseudoscience. An April 24 NBC News investigation found active Facebook ads promoting ultraviolet lights for medical treatments that violated the platform’s COVID-19 misinformation policy.

In addition, a search on Facebook on April 27 for “Miracle Mineral Solution” — a dangerous form of bleach hyped as a “cure-all” — showed that there are at least one page and two groups dedicated to promoting the toxic solution. (At the COVID-19 briefing with reporters on April 23, President Donald Trump suggested evaluating the use of ultraviolet light and “disinfectant” inside patients’ bodies for their effectiveness in treating COVID-19.)

Related reading

“Google Will Require Proof of Identity From All Advertisers” (Tiffany Hsu and Daisuke Wakabayashi, The New York Times).

For discussion

What impact do you think these transparency measures will have? Should Facebook and Google have taken these steps sooner? How challenging is content moderation for tech companies? Are there transparency features and tools that should (but don’t) exist on major social media and digital advertising platforms? What are they? What other kinds of tools could social media platforms add to help their users better understand what they see?

Another idea

Review with students the existing transparency features on Facebook, including its page transparency section and its instructions on viewing the data the platform has collected about them, and Google’s “Why This Ad?” link and data profile tools.

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