Facebook's Advertising Tools Complicate Efforts To Stop Russian Interference : All Tech Considered Facebook says 126 million people may have seen Russian content aimed at influencing Americans. Marketing gurus say Facebook is unlikely to solve the problem because of its ad-based business model.

Facebook's Advertising Tools Complicate Efforts To Stop Russian Interference

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Let's stick with the subject of Russia and the 2016 election for this week's All Tech Considered.


KELLY: Facebook now says 126 million people may have seen Russian content aimed at influencing Americans. That comes as Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, get ready for three appearances on Capitol Hill this week. They'll have to explain how operatives linked to Russia used their platforms to spread false and divisive messages and what can be done to stop them. That's tricky, though. Take Facebook. It's designed to be open and easy to use for people with good and bad intentions. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Two billion people know Facebook through the news feed. Now let's step into a part of Facebook you've probably never seen - the advertising platform. You could call it the least exclusive club on Earth because just about anyone can use it.

MARTY WEINTRAUB: Anyone in five minutes (laughter).

SHAHANI: If I'm a Russian operative, can I do it?

WEINTRAUB: A thousand percent.

MERRY MORUD: Absolutely.

WEINTRAUB: Some people say it's easy.

SHAHANI: Marty Weintraub and Merry Morud are marketing gurus with the firm Aimclear. Members of Congress and luxury brands hire them to promote political campaigns, cars, handbags on Facebook. And the marketers point out Facebook's platform is self-service, which is a huge change from traditional media ad buys. You don't have a person talking to a person. Instead, you have a person with an email address and credit card talking to software.

MORUD: You could just have a profile and then go to facebook.com/advertising.

SHAHANI: Advertisers have flocked to it because it works. Facebook's done a great job of building psychographic data - things about you that you offer up, like your birthday, and things you don't say but your behavior shows, like your wedding anniversary, income level, if you own a home or play tennis.

Let's take the term expats - people who start their accounts in one country and then live in another. It's a useful way to target immigrants - say, for English language classes or for a green card scam. Morud shows me a drop-down list.

MORUD: OK, so we have expats from Mexico.

SHAHANI: There are so many traits to choose from.

MORUD: To layer on income, so we go to narrow audience.

SHAHANI: She keeps adding layers to build a target audience, in this case of people who are vulnerable, desperate, most likely to fall for a headline that reads, get a green card for $400. They add unemployed to the list.

WEINTRAUB: Can you add unemployed to that bucket?

MORUD: Yeah, sure.

SHAHANI: Scams, fake news, foreign interference - the marketers say all of these are made not only possible but efficient, scaleable by Facebook's cutting-edge technology. Users engage with viral content, and that's great for Facebook's bottom line. Last year, the platform raked in nearly 27 billion in ad dollars. While Facebook is under political pressure to clean up shop, Weintraub says it's under far greater financial pressure to remain wide open.

WEINTRAUB: It's their revenue they're dealing with. So it's not like they made a team of people, like, from the NSA and said, lock this puppy down.

SHAHANI: The changes the company has made are typically at the margins. Facebook doesn't require every advertiser to show ID, but it does zap terms here and there. If you want to reach white supremacists, you can no longer target people with an interest in the KKK and David Duke, but you can target those interested in certain racial conspiracy theories to reach a similar audience. It's a game of whack-a-mole.

WEINTRAUB: The sharpest marketers in the world are going to find a way around any targeting system or redaction.

SHAHANI: Facebook says it's hiring more than 4,000 people to weed out fake accounts and violators. Still, the company engineers are building new tools that could make it far worse. For example, if I want to target extremists in California, I can now take a small email list I've built, say, from a rally and feed it to the ad platform. The software gets you more extremists without you even having to say that's what you're looking for.

WEINTRAUB: It's a total blind. Facebook has no idea what targeting is providing you with.

SHAHANI: Tomorrow, lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter will speak to Congress. Marty Weintraub worries that lawmakers will get stuck in abstract policy debates and not dig into advertising, the core of the business.

WEINTRAUB: The tools are way deeper than you folks have even scratched the surface of. You have no idea what you're dealing with here.

SHAHANI: Facebook plans to begin labeling ads as paid content so it's clear to users. And a company spokesperson says it's important to remember all the good that people can promote through Facebook advertising, everything from disaster relief efforts to locally owned businesses. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

KELLY: And we want to let you know NPR receives some financial support from Facebook to produce video content on its site.

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