looking at facebook ads under a microscope

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Facebook’s political ad transparency tool is anything but

An already bad system isn't going to get any better.


Emily Bloch


Posted on Jan 31, 2019   Updated on May 20, 2021, 8:18 pm CDT

After a PR nightmare that revealed Russians bought thousands of Facebook ads to influence the 2016 presidential election, Facebook launched a new structure for fielding and handling ads.

But they’re already walking back that tepid effort at transparency. 

As reported by ProPublica, despite its repeated calls for “transparency,” Facebook has actually been quietly restricting access to tools created by outside parties and publications to monitor how users are being targeted by political advertisers. This month, those tools stopped working because of new updates Facebook implemented.

“This is very concerning,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who co-sponsored the Honest Ads Act requiring Facebook ad transparency. “Investigative groups like ProPublica need access to this information in order to track and report on the opaque and frequently deceptive world of online advertising.”

Before the update, ProPublica’s impending Political Ad Collector tool took information accessible by Facebook users on how they’re being targeted for ads, but automated the process into a searchable database. According to the publication, the Political Ad Collector, which had been in the works for 18 months, would be able to show users who ads were targeting with a rollover feature called “Why Am I Seeing This?” followed by an explanation.

Starting in May of last year, Mark Zuckerberg’s platform also launched a transparency push, which would enforce restrictions for political ads. According to the social media site, political ads intended for Facebook or Instagram—which is also owned by Facebook—can only be launched by “authorized advertisers.”

Authorized advertisers go through a checklist of authentication verifications with Facebook, including confirming their identity, linking accounts, and authorizing a corresponding Instagram account.

But even then, an investigation by Vice showed the site could purchase ads for “Mike Pence.” Even before it launched, Zuckerberg admitted his solution’s impotence.

“These steps by themselves won’t stop all people trying to game the system. But they will make it a lot harder for anyone to do what the Russians did during the 2016 election and use fake accounts and pages to run ads,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. “Election interference is a problem that’s bigger than any one platform … This will help raise the bar for all political advertising online.”

And for an added level of pseudo-transparency, those ads are available in a searchable archive that logs posts from either platform. This sounded great in theory—until you try it.

According to its website, the Ad Archive collects ads “about elected officials, candidates for public office and issues of national importance, such as education or immigration,” that were launched on or after May 7, 2018 and will store them for up to seven years.

Facebook is also publishing a weekly Ad Archive Report, letting users know how much advertisers have spent. As of publication time, the report says that there are more than 2.5 million ads are stored in the archive right now.

In addition to the ads themselves, the archive gives users some context, including:

  • If the ad is active or inactive
  • When the ad was initially posted
  • Who posted the ad and who paid for it
  • How much was spent on promotion
  • Impressions with general audience breakdown
  • The locations the ad was viewed in

In theory, this should be great. It should be a glimpse behind the curtain for the general public and a new tool for journalists, researchers, and political campaigns at the very least. The only problem is we’re less than a year into this archive and it’s essentially worthless.  

A simple search for “2020” reveals approximately 40,000 ads, which makes parsing what is happening on the network a Herculean effort.

But it’s not just the amount.

  • It’s impossible to tell off an initial search to tell if a post was published on Instagram or Facebook. The archive won’t tell you and there’s no way to filter it. Following the 2016 election, Facebook has received a wealth of backlash while Instagram has remained seemingly unscathed. Though they are under the same umbrella, they are two wildly different networks, and the ability to sort by platform would make for far greater transparency. 
  • Non-political promotions get wrapped up in the search: If media organizations use their own money to promote a story, it can get flagged as a political as. Searches for “Howard Schultz” show paid promotion by theSkimm and Axios. Is Cheddar promoting its live show a political ad? No, but it’s wrapped up in Facebook’s findings anyway.
  • You can’t search or narrow down by date: The 2016 election kicked off the day after Trump was elected president but Facebook has only been tracking ads since May of this year. That large gap of ads aside, there’s still an overwhelming amount of ads out there. Searching the phrase “Trump 2020” says there were about 19,000 ads to parse through. And that gives you both pro- and anti-Trump ads. 
  • The demographic and financial information is essentially worthless. For nearly every post looked at—from ones about Kamala Harris to ones promoting President Trump, impressions were listed as less than $1,000 and impressions were less than 100. But the same campaign can be repromoted hundreds of times, jacking up both the expenses and impressions. Facebook doesn’t let you easily see what an ad campaign more broadly looks like, instead focusing on each individual time a post is promoted. 
  • There’s no linkback to the original post. Sure, you can see what the original Facebook or Instagram post looked like, you can even clink on the website it was promoting. But there’s no direct way to get to the original post or see how many likes it got, how many shares it received, or what comments on the posts were.

The social media site reportedly called its Ad Archive an “alternative” to ProPublica’s, but as ProPublica pointed out, Facebook’s version is only available in three countries, doesn’t disclose targeting data, and fails to include all ads, unlike its own.

A tweet from Facebook’s Director of Product, Rob Leathern said a set of transparency tools will be globally available in June. But if it’s more of the same, it won’t be useful at all. 


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*First Published: Jan 31, 2019, 7:30 am CST