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Who says Facebook ads don't work? I've found myself mesmerized by a recent series: "AP Says: Palin Lied"; "Howard Kurtz: Palin Lied"; "Shame: Palin's Iraq Lie"; "WSJ Says: Palin Lied". The online onslaught on Republican vice-presidential candidate's truthiness has an algorithmic catchiness. Each ad links to a news story which casts doubt on some claim Palin has made — though not with the "PALIN LIED!" forcefulness of the Facebook ads which promote them. As much as politicians love to bash the media, they gladly use their stories to bolster negative political ads. But there's the mystery: Who's buying these ads? The Wall Street Journal identified the buyer on Monday as MoveOn.org, a liberal political-activism group. But the ads are still running, and Facebook's website still doesn't say who bought them.That may violate federal election law.The Federal Election Commission's rules require that all "public communications" include a disclaimer:

... a statement placed on a public communication that identifies the person(s) who paid for the communication and, where applicable, the person(s) who authorized the communication.

That's why, on television ads, you hear Barack Obama and John McCain say, "I approved this message." But there's no such approval on the Facebook ads — or any other indication who paid for them. Internet politicking is exempt from many election laws. But there's one big exception: paid online advertising is treated the same as other forms of advertising. In a classic piece of regulatory doublespeak, the FEC says:

General public political advertising does not include Internet ads, except for communications placed for a fee on another person’s web site

Got that? No Internet advertising is covered, except for all Internet advertising. There is one possible loophole MoveOn's Facebook ads could skirt under — a provision for "small items upon which the disclaimer cannot be conveniently printed." Facebook's smallest ad format restricts the number of words an advertiser can use, arguably making it inconvenient to provide a disclaimer. But that defense seems specious; they could simply buy a larger-format ad, or link to a website which makes the identity of the advertiser clear. Matt Hicks, a Facebook spokesman, told the Journal that the ads comply with Facebook's policies. It's true that Facebook allows political advertising. But Facebook's terms for advertisers have other rules which MoveOn may be violating:

Advertisement

  • Ads must clearly state and represent the company, product, or brand that is being advertised.
  • In both ad text and image, you must not include any content that may be deemed as infringing upon the rights of any third party, including copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other personal or proprietary right, or that is deceptive or fraudulent.
  • Ads may not contain, facilitate or promote defamatory, libelous, slanderous and/or unlawful content.

In fairness to Facebook's rulemakers, this may be an issue above their pay grade. Other forms of online advertising, like Google's AdWords, could easily be used for similar campaigns. Text ads' targeted audience, short duration, and ease of alteration will make it hard for rival campaigns to track such activity. Without a disclosure, only Google or Facebook will know who's paying for a message. The FEC will have to rule on whether its disclaimer requirements apply to short text ads. But it's hard to see why they don't.