NEW YORK -- Twitter Inc. is bringing greater transparency to advertising on its social network, addressing a significant concern of congressional investigators probing foreign meddling during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
Twitter is creating a new "transparency center" that will dedicate a section to political ads that will show how much each campaign spent on advertising, the identity of the organization funding the campaign, and what demographics the ad targeted. Political ads will be required to identify their campaigns and will be indicated on Twitter with a different look and feel, the company said in a statement Tuesday. The company said it will introduce stronger penalties for advertisers who violate policies.
Twitter's efforts mark one of the biggest changes among social media companies to respond to concerns from the U.S. government that Russia used their platforms to spread discord in the election. Facebook Inc. has already pledged a sweeping overhaul of political advertising and said it will give Congress all the evidence it has on the campaigns. It's also hiring 4,000 workers to improve the vetting of online advertising and identification of fake accounts.
Criticism has been mounting that the platforms have been ill-equipped to deal with foreign tampering. Twitter was criticized last month by lawmakers for a "deeply disappointing" and "inadequate" presentation into suspicious Russian activity on its network. At the time, Twitter said it disabled 22 accounts after reviewing information from Facebook showing connections to 450 bogus accounts on that company's social network. The company also disclosed that news site Russia Today spent $274,100 in U.S. ads in 2016. In that year, its Twitter accounts promoted 1,823 Tweets that targeted the U.S. market.
Beyond politics, Twitter's transparency center will show all ads that are currently running on the platform, how long they've been running, who created them, and which ones are targeted to users. Consumers will be able to report inappropriate ads or give negative feedback.
The latest measures address only a slice of the concerns voiced by Congress, however. Twitter also faces a problem with automated accounts, or bots, that have been used to spread misinformation on its network. Researchers have found large networks of bots with potential Russian ties that were used to post political messages.
Social media companies have achieved astounding growth by creating self-service systems that allowed advertisers to easily make purchases without interacting with a salesperson. They built the systems so that advertisers could quickly target their messages to specific audiences on a granular level.
The latest moves by Twitter and Facebook are signs that tech companies are seeking to self-regulate before they may get reined in by more stringent government rules. Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner and Republican John McCain introduced a bill last week that would require internet platforms that average 50 million unique visitors a month to disclose online information about political advertisers, including copies of the ads, descriptions of the audience targeted, the average rate paid for the ads, and the name and contact information of the sponsors. That would match rules for the internet with what traditional media has to disclose in terms of political ad buyers.
General counsels for Facebook, Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Twitter will testify in public hearings before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees on Nov. 1 on how their platforms were used in the election.
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