KUNM

Under Congressional Microscope, Twitter Vows New 'Transparency' On Ads

Oct 25, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 11:42 am

Updated Oct. 25 at 1:42 p.m. EDT

Twitter has promised more disclosure about its advertisements as members of Congress put the big social networks under a microscope in investigating Russian interference in U.S. politics.

The San Francisco-based microblogging service said Tuesday that it plans to unveil an "industry-leading transparency center" through which it will "offer everyone visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads" and tools through which users can respond.

"We are committed to stricter policies and transparency around issues-based ads," wrote Bruce Falck, Twitter's general manager for revenue product and engineering.

Twitter and its larger peers, Facebook and Google, are under scrutiny from Capitol Hill over the role they played in Russia's influence campaign targeting the 2016 presidential election. Together, the three platforms command a global reach and touch billions of users, and members of Congress want to try to prevent them from being exploited in the same way again.

Russian influence-mongers used a combination of clandestine spy techniques — including cyberattacks and snooping — and overt public relations tools, including online ads and human agents — to interfere in the presidential race.

In the case of Twitter specifically, the company has acknowledged selling just under $275,000 worth of ads to Russia's state-backed RT news agency. It also was and is used to amplify controversy, both by automated bots that promote both sides of divisive issues and by human agents who stir the pot as trolls.

Twitter has vowed to quash as much of that as it can by refining the technical workings of its service, but company leaders also have acknowledged there are limits to what they'll prevent or police.

That's one reason why Falck's post focused on advertising, over which Twitter has stronger control. He said the company will disclose all ads running on the service, the amounts of money spent, the identities of buyers and details about whom the ads target.

Another reason is that Twitter, Facebook and Google are trying to mollify members of Congress who've proposed legislation that would require similar commitments about disclosures and other changes to the way they do business.

Twitter said it looks "forward to engaging with members of Congress and other key stakeholders on these issues as the legislative process continues," but the companies and other technology advocates have said that a new law might not be necessary. Big Tech wants to regulate itself without new obligations or restrictions from D.C.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner — the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the sponsors of legislation that would mandate disclosure — welcomed Twitter's announcement.

"A good first step," Warner said in a tweet circulated by his office, "particularly public disclosure of ads info. Online political ads need more transparency & disclosure."

Warner and his co-sponsors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., announced their legislation last week. On Tuesday, Warner's office also circulated the text of an editorial in Bloomberg View, which said the bill was "entirely necessary."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.