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We want to reduce bad ads, says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

The company has announced significant steps to bring in more transparency to ads and Pages on Facebook. Giving people more information about any organisation and the ads will mean increased accountability for advertisers and help to prevent abuse

In an extensive conversation with the media at the Menlo Park Headquarters of the company, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Director of Product Management Rob Leathern, and Product Marketing Director Emma Rodgers discussed the new steps the social networking giant is taking to bring more transparency to ads and Pages.

Describing the ultimate goal of all the efforts taken towards bringing transparency, Sandberg said, “Our ultimate goal is very simple: we want to reduce bad ads, we want to make sure people understand what they’re seeing, who paid for it, and the fullness of what other people might see.”

The company announced significant steps to bring more transparency to ads and Pages on Facebook. Giving people more information about any organisation and the ads it’s currently running will mean increased accountability for advertisers, helping to prevent abuse on Facebook.

View active ads: One can now see the ads a Page is running across Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and Facebook’s partner network, even if those ads aren’t shown to the user. Just log into Facebook, visit any Page and select “Info and Ads.” One can see ad creative and copy, and can flag anything suspicious by clicking on “Report Ad.”

More Page information: One can also learn more about Pages, even if they don’t advertise. For example, one can see any recent name changes and the date the Page was created. Facebook will be adding more Page information in the coming weeks.

The company will also soon launch its political ads labelling and archive in Brazil, ahead of October’s general election (it was launched in the US in May). Anyone running political ads in Brazil will be able to register next month. And Brazilians will soon see labels for election ads in their country — all of which will be added to the archive.

The vast majority of ads on Facebook are run by legitimate organisations – whether it’s a small business looking for new customers, an advocacy group raising money for their cause, or a politician running for office. But Facebook has seen that bad actors can misuse our products, too. These steps are just the start – they’re always looking for more ways to improve. By shining a bright light on all ads, as well as the Pages that run them, the company will make it easier to root out abuse – helping to ensure that bad actors are held accountable for the ads they run.

Speaking about bringing transparency in political ads in countries other than Brazil and the US, Leathern explained, “If you look at what we released in the US, obviously it requires people to authorise, to provide identity information and others. It’s a non-trivial exercise to make sure we can do the same thing in other markets. There’re also different regulations and requirements that different countries might have of information that they want to be shared in terms of who paid for the advertisement. We have to take a deliberate approach to expanding to other countries, so that’s what we’re doing. Again, as I mentioned we are looking for feedback not only from third parties, watchdog groups and regulators in those countries, but also from the people who are using the existing products like the transparency tools that we’ve made available in the US, for example.”

Sandberg added, “We are trying to get there, we understand people want it. We’re certainly trying to prioritise things for elections, hence Brazil. Moving as quickly as we can. These things are big data projects. It’s a lot of work on the back end to do this.”

At the press event, Sandberg said, “We spent the first decade, 12 years, really focused on building social experiences, and what we’ve learned across a number of really hard issues from election interference to fake news to data privacy is that we underinvested in prevention and we underinvested in proactively policing the ecosystem that we had built.”

Leathern said, “As we work to share more context and information about Pages and the people who are managing it, we’re also building tools to hold advertisers accountable for the content that they share on the platform, we’ve heard from people that they want a more complete picture of the ads on Facebook, not just the ones that are being shown to them. As of today, everyone, as Sheryl mentioned, can see active ads on Facebook. We began testing this feature in Canada to show the ads a Page is currently running; we listened also to how people were interacting and using this feature and we updated it.”

The company has also taken its advertisers into confidence about these developments. Sandberg said, “We definitely let advertisers know this is coming. I would say the majority of them were very positive and that they understood why we are trying to get our platform to be more transparent. They stand behind the ads they’re putting up and they understand this. There’s definitely some out there with concern. It’s mainly concern that their competitors are going to then see all of their ads, and it just may make it easier for their competitors to see what kind of ads they are running. But for the most part, we think people have been very supportive.”

Sandberg had mentioned that transparency doesn’t look to be changing much of user behaviour; however, would it change the way advertisers work with Facebook? He added, “To be clear, we didn’t hear a lot of the feedback but we definitely heard some. I think advertisers for the most part stand behind the ads they’re running. You actually can see a lot of your competitor’s ads and it’s more just like you happen to catch them or they happen to be targeted to you. It’s not that these aren’t public facing things in the first place – advertising is always a public facing piece of content you put into the world. I don’t believe we will see a meaningful change in advertiser willingness to engage in our platform. I don’t expect that – we haven’t heard that.”

Leathern added, “When you go into the active ads sections on mobile or desktop, you can see all the ads that, that entity is running whether they are running on Facebook and Instagram. They are all rendered in feed format so the ads have a consistent look, though the way they actually show up on Instagram might be slightly different than they would look in the News Feed.”

Answering a question about handling the ads from NGOs and what they are promoting in their ads. Sandberg said, “There are political ads, which people usually think of as: I’m a candidate running for office and I am making an ad for this campaign. There are issue ads: issue ads can be on clean water, on girls’ empowerment. Issue ads can be on things that are very relevant to a specific election, from guns to reproductive rights, and others. Then there are non-profits doing work. Again, we’re not saying that all these things are political; we just chose to be as inclusive as possible so that everything would be transparent. We are not labelling them political ads; we’re just being as transparent as possible so that people can see everything. It gets hard to draw those lines. For a lot of those non-profits, people seeing their ads is very good for the work they’re doing.”

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