Facebook enhances ad transparency in Singapore ahead of general election

Facebook said that those who wish to run ads regarding social issues, elections or politics on Facebook's Singapore platforms will need to confirm their identity and location and also disclose who is responsible for the ad.
Facebook said that those who wish to run ads regarding social issues, elections or politics on Facebook's Singapore platforms will need to confirm their identity and location and also disclose who is responsible for the ad.PHOTO: ST FILE

Advertisers must confirm their identity and say who is behind ads, among other measures

Socio-political advertising on Facebook and Instagram will face greater scrutiny as Singapore heads towards a general election.

This follows Facebook's announ-cement yesterday of measures to bring greater transparency to its platforms here.

The social media giant's measures will take effect immediately, with advertisers being required to confirm their identity and location, and disclose who is responsible for the advertisements.

The authorisation process will cover advertisers who run ads on issues such as civil and social rights, immigration, crime, political values and governance.

Facebook had first put in place the requirements in June, starting with more than 50 countries. It had said then: "We are expanding proactive enforcement on these ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching, starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina."

Facebook's latest move comes after Singapore's Elections Department's announcement on Sept 4 that the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee was convened last month. The next general election has to be held by April 2021.

Singapore's Protection From Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which was passed in May but is not in force yet, includes a provision on political advertising.

Under the law, technology companies will be subject to a code of practice which may require digital advertising intermediaries to disclose the sponsor and other information linked to paid political ads communicated in Singapore.

Yesterday's announcement by Facebook comes on the heels of Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's speech on Wednesday on why Singapore needs laws to counter foreign attempts to influence its domestic politics and public opinion. The minister, who was speaking at a conference on foreign interference tactics, cited cases of foreign meddling in Singapore and other countries, like in the United States' 2016 presidential election.

He said the Government wants to work with technology companies as partners to address the problem.

Facebook's public policy director for global elections, Ms Katie Harbath, said the advertisement transparency tools rolled out by her company will enable advertisers to get authorised, place "paid for by" disclaimers on their ads and keep their ads in an ad library for seven years.

"Starting today, we are making this a requirement in Singapore and will begin proactively enforcing our policy on ads about social issues, elections and politics," she added.

Elaborating, Facebook said an advertiser can select itself, a page it runs or its organisation to appear in the "paid for by" disclaimer. It also has to give extra information such as a phone number, e-mail or website if it chooses to use its organisation or page name in the disclaimer.

 
 
 

"Authorisations may take a few weeks to complete," she added.

Once authorised, advertisers will have their ads placed in an ad library for seven years, including their disclaimer information.

The ad library would include information about each ad, including its range of impressions. People can also learn about the ad's demographic information, such as the age, gender and location of those who saw the ad. Facebook will also launch an ad library report in the next few weeks to give less tech-savvy people information about ads on social issues, elections or politics.

Acknowledging Facebook's potential to give people a voice regardless of their age or political beliefs, Ms Harbath said: "We will continue to refine and improve our policies and tools as part of our commitment to help protect the integrity of elections in Singapore and around the world."

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said the initiatives would add a much-needed dose of transparency and accountability to political advertising on Facebook. While political advertising is not yet a key feature of socio-political discourse in Singapore, its potential to shape public opinion and influence public discourse is real and could be powerful, said the former Nominated MP.

"As advertisers on Facebook now cannot remain anonymous, advertisers can be held accountable, legally and politically, for the political speech and positions they are taking. In this regard, it can help to reduce blatant falsehoods," he said.

But in a sophisticated operation, a foreign entity can place political ads through proxies and third parties, he added. "There will be the need for legislation to require political advertisers to be Singaporeans or Singapore-based entities."

Mr Shanmugam has said that technology companies cannot be relied on to self-regulate and counter hostile information campaigns online.

When contacted, a People's Action Party spokesman said it will comply with Facebook's new requirements which, it added, would not impact its use of the platform.

The Singapore Democratic Party said it posts only material by its members, so the new rules will not affect it. But the wait for an ad to be approved will hamper its electoral campaign, it added.

The Progress Singapore Party said: "This aligns well with the PSP agenda for political institutions and their affiliates to deliver better transparency, accountability and independence. We at the PSP believe Singapore politics is for Singaporeans."

• Additional reporting by Fabian Koh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2019, with the headline 'Facebook enhances ad transparency in S'pore ahead of GE'. Print Edition | Subscribe