Loophole in Facebook’s new ID rules on political ads leaves door wide open for astroturf groups

Today Facebook has announced higher identity verification standards for US political adverts ahead of the 2020 presidential election. However, loopholes still exist that could enable astroturf (fake grassroots) campaigns if the rules were rolled out for a UK election.

Facebook announced in a blog post that, from mid September, organisations and individuals in the US buying political ad space on its platform would have to provide more information than previously required. This includes information such as a Federal Election Commission ID number, which would be extremely difficult to fake. Doing so will mean those organisations receive a “Confirmed Organization” watermark on their adverts.

However, they may also be able to receive this watermark if they provide a verifiable phone number, business email, mail-deliverable address and a business website with a domain that matches the email. Ostensibly this is to lower barriers to entry for smaller campaign groups. In practice, this loophole is open to abuse by anyone with a computer, a phone, and a mailing address.

In a UK context, this means that astroturf campaigns, such as those run by Lynton Crosby's Mainstream Network, may still be able to get “Confirmed Organization” status. As a result, powerful interest groups can still manufacture support for their causes on social media whilst hiding behind a smokescreen of authenticity. 

Pascal Crowe, Data and Democracy Project Officer for Open Rights Group, said: 

“The loophole in these requirements means any astroturf campaign with an email account, mobile phone, and mailing address can set up shop as a grassroots movement.

“Powerful interest groups will abuse speech rights online to tighten their stranglehold on democratic debate by throwing money at political advertising. 

“It’s going to take tighter rules and tougher sanctions to stop Steve Bannon or Lynton Crosby.

“Facebook must urgently take this into account for any upcoming UK election.”