The announcement is part of a major shift in the industry to lift the veil over how its secretive advertising businesses — its cash centers — work, as lawmakers put more pressure on social media companies about the role their sites played in Russia’s attempt to influence the election. Twitter, Facebook and Google are scheduled to appear for hearings before the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on Nov. 1.
Lawmakers like Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the leading Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have expressed frustration about Twitter. In late September, he said Twitter’s response was “inadequate” when it was asked to provide evidence of Russian-linked advertising and accounts that spread misinformation or were used to favor a presidential candidate.
At the time, Twitter said it had discovered about 200 accounts linked to Russian efforts to influence the election. But that figure was significantly less than the number uncovered a month earlier by researchers from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund, the public policy research group in Washington. The researchers tracked 600 Twitter accounts — both human and suspected automated “bots” — that they linked to Russian attempts to influence the election.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, said that the company’s announcement did not go far enough and that online companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google needed rules that the government could enforce.
Last week, Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Warner and Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, introduced a bill that would require digital platforms to report who bought political ads on their sites in the same way that TV broadcast stations must maintain databases with those disclosures. The bill was a response to concern that fake accounts linked to Russia on Facebook and other sites were able to fly past monitors on the sites and easily buy thousands of ads promoting racial and other hot-button issues to sow chaos before the election and to influence the result.
“I welcome this transparency,” Ms. Klobuchar said, “but we need a law in place for two major reasons: Not every company will do this, and you need rules for the road.” She added that the companies should not be left to police themselves.
The announcement from Twitter followed a public relations blitz this month by Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to announce similar voluntary efforts to tighten standards for ad buyers. Lawmakers are still skeptical, saying there are many unanswered questions about whether the social media sites can prevent the mistakes of the 2016 election on their own.
The changes also raise new issues for politicians. For one, advertising agencies often consider their digital strategy part of their “secret sauce” when trying to sell their services to politicians and campaign strategists. Shining a light on the types of ads, the amount spent on them and how often they change could give valuable information to competing candidates.
It is also unclear whether Twitter will be able to keep up with campaigns’ ever-changing digital targeting, budgets and goals, and the company did not mention how it plans to tackle large-scale misinformation spread by bots.
Many of those automated accounts, along with Twitter users with suspected ties to the Russian government, bombarded the platform without buying advertising. Researchers at the cybersecurity firm FireEye discovered that hundreds or thousands of fake accounts regularly sent out messages criticizing Hillary Clinton — sometimes with identical tweets dispatched seconds apart.
Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said transparency in advertising alone “is not a solution to the deployment of bots that amplify fake or misleading content or to the successful efforts of online trolls to promote divisive messages.”
Twitter said it would try to tighten standards for issues-based ads that wouldn’t fall under its new electioneering rules, such as an environmental group’s push for clean-air policies or an energy company’s promotion of environmental deregulation. But the company admitted that the industry had not agreed on definitions for issues ads.
“We will work with our peer companies, other industry leaders, policymakers and ad partners to clearly define them quickly and integrate them into the new approach mentioned above,” Twitter said in its blog post.