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Facebook’s UK policy chief seeks to defend targeted political ads ahead of election

One of Facebook’s most senior British lobbyists has sought to defend the company’s decision not to ban political advertising in the run up to next month’s general election.

The social media giant has faced mounting pressure in recent days to stop promoting political adverts after Twitter announced it would bring an end to the practice last week.

But, in a media briefing on Wednesday, Rebecca Stimson – Facebook’s head of UK public policy – said that while UK electoral law needed to be “brought into the 21st century”, political adverts would continue to have a home on the platform.

“We believe it’s important that candidates and politicians can communicate with their constituents and would be constituents,” she told reporters. “Online political ads are also important for both new challengers and campaigning groups to get their message out.”

The briefing came after it emerged that hundreds of Facebook employees had signed a letter in October calling on Mark Zuckerberg to review the company’s approach to microtargeting in political campaigns, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked the company last year.

NBC News reported earlier this week that Facebook had no plans to ban political adverts, or enlist the support of existing fact-checking partners to start scrutinising them. However the US broadcaster, citing three “high-ranking” sources, said Zuckerberg remained open to new ways of cracking down on the spread of false ads used to microtarget users.

But speaking to reporters on Thursday afternoon (7 November), Rob Leathern – a Facebook executive working on business integrity issues – said “we’re not changing the targeting policy”, noting that advertisers who use its “custom audiences” feature are asked to follow a set of terms and conditions aimed at preventing discrimination.

Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal blew up in March last year, Facebook has introduced new rules which attempt to force advertisers who create political ads to register and disclose their identity. But the system relies on users following the terms of usage and does not prevent advertisers from posting political messages. The company removed a political advert in the UK earlier this week which failed to disclose the sponsor.

During the call, the executives acknowledged that they had observed a rise in the number of pages which concealed the identity of the operators. “If we find a page is misleading people about its purpose by concealing its ownership, we will require people to go through our business verification process,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cyber security policy. “[We will] show more information about the page itself about who is behind that page including the organisation’s legal name and verified city, phone number or website in order to stay up.”

The company had not seen evidence of foreign interference in the UK to date. “We haven’t seen sustained targeting with this type of deception from overseas targeting the UK yet,” Gleicher added. “Our teams are continuing to look.”