Viewpoint: From Russia with loads of dodgy ads

Last week, Facebook revealed that it had identified, and removed, hundreds of fake Russian accounts that had spent around $100,000 (£76,640) on ads between June 2015 and May 2017. Also last week, Facebook was accused on inflating its ad reach by millions. So, it’s fair to say Facebook is still having its fair share of ad-related problems, even after all the company has done to clean up its advertising act in the last year or so.

At the back end of last year, the social network began to be more transparent about its various advertising measurement problems. These problems first came to light when it was revealed that Facebook had been overestimating average video view time by up to 80 per cent because of the company’s metric only took into account those that had viewed a video for more than three seconds. Anyway, this eventually led to Facebook agreeing that it was having issues and deciding to allow independent audit of its ad data by the Media Rating Council (MRC). That’s a short history of Facebook’s recent advertising problems. These are just a few of the issues the internet giant has had with its advertising, there a plenty other – some more controversial – things that we will not get into now.

Back to the point at hand, Facebook’s last week.

Let’s first of all put to bed the accusations of Facebook inflating its ad reach by millions in comparison to census data. It hasn’t. The ad reach that Facebook estimates uses location data to provide a figure, meaning it also includes those visiting the country and those who are not official residents. In addition, there are a lot of people on Facebook that don’t use their real ages.

“I don’t think advertisers should worry too much about this difference. It is quite understandable that there is a such gap between census data and Facebook’s estimate, which is basically the gap between the number of residents and the number of potential ad-viewers,” Dr Zhewei Zhang, assistant professor of information systems at Warwick Business School, told Mobile Marketing. “The government has a stricter definition on who ‘lives in’ the country, compared with Facebook’s definition on who is ‘in’ the country. Facebooks estimate cares more about who can view its advertisements.

“The difference can come from things like immigration status, whether the viewer is a resident or visitor, legal or illegal immigrant, and also age, whether it is from official birth records or self-reported, especially as it is not uncommon for juveniles to raise their true age in order to access content with an age restriction.

“The estimated data from Facebook is more of a PR strategy to show its potential total number of reach. For any advertiser, the number of effective viewers is much more important and Facebook claims it can provide more accurate targeting and better results than traditional sells.”

Now that’s settled, let’s move onto Russia.

The question has to be asked as to why Facebook took so long – nearly two years – to identify the around 470 fake accounts and pages that were violating its policies. Although the ads from these accounts didn’t directly endorse a political candidate during the US presidential election, they were targeted at Hillary Clinton voters and amplified divisive social and political messages.

Facebook was warned by many about the influence it was potentially having prior to and during the election period, and, though it put in plenty of work to stifle the rise of fake news, it denied that Russia had been using its platform to push its political agenda. This belief has now, of course, been proved to be false and left the social network slightly red-faced.

The problem Facebook has is that is simply too big to manage. It has over 2bn users and more than 80m fake accounts. And, as you’d expect with such a large number of people to manage, it is reactive rather than proactive in its approach most of the time. This approach, in defence of Facebook, is the only approach it can really take with this many people.

However, the approach wasn’t the thing in the way this time round.

When it comes to ads, a real-life human being reviews the content to see if they meet Facebook’s standards, as opposed to a robot. So, if anything, the quality of Facebook’s reviewing process is what needs to be questioned. The company gets a lot of ads through its reviewing process and the turnaround is pretty quick, so how much attention is paid to the actual message of an ad is anybody’s guess. Though I doubt the ads realistically had a huge bearing on the way people voted in last year’s election, this is what Facebook must address so there isn’t another Russian ad debacle in the foreseeable future.

Is Facebook trying its best by being transparent and putting in the work to put things right? Yes. Is the company’s best really good enough at the moment? Nowhere near it. Overall, is it the social networks fault? Not entirely.