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As 2024 election approaches, new study finds Meta, X, and Google’s political ad libraries lack critical data

Every site was found to be deficient.


Tricia Crimmins


Posted on Apr 16, 2024   Updated on Apr 16, 2024, 11:11 am CDT

In the age of social media, political ads can influence elections. And while sites have worked since 2016 to be transparent about the spending on their platforms, a new study finds that effort lacking.

Ad databases popped up after the outcry over Facebook, Russia, and Cambridge Analytica, with fears exploding that unknown actors could manipulate the electorate through social media.

In advance of the 2024 election, Mozilla and CheckFirst did a deep dive on the ad repositories of social media networks, which track who purchases the spends and how they are targeted.

Mozilla and CheckFirst found that ad repositories for social media sites Meta, X, TikTok, and YouTube aren’t functioning properly—making it hard for researchers to track who’s behind ads and where they’re targeted.

They also said X’s ad repository was a “major disappointment.”

The analysis focused on their ability to access information about the buyer, content, duration, and target audience of ads presented on social media and was performed between December 2023 and January 2024.

For Meta, Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, Mozilla and CheckFirst said its ad repository was riddled with missing data and inaccurate information. Searching through Meta’s data was doable, but there was information missing on 17% of Instagram ads and a whopping 35% of Facebook ads.

Facebook and Instagram allow ads that question election legitimacy, meaning anyone could push the same kind of disinformation that swirled in 2020, with users unaware of whether the effort was coming from a sitting president, a candidate, a political party, or an outside actor.

As for TikTok, Mozilla and CheckFirst said its ad repository seemed “robust,” but upon a closer look, also had gaps in data and accuracy errors. And like Instagram, information on 17% of ads shown on TikTok’s For You Page was missing.

Plus, TikTok’s ad repository only dated back to October 2023—information on ads shown before then isn’t publicly available.

On TikTok, political ads aren’t quite the problem they are on other sites: In 2019, TikTok banned all political ads from running on the app, but it’s bad at putting a stop to videos containing election misinformation.

In January, TikTok unveiled its 2024 election transparency center.

YouTube also has an ad misinformation problem. Despite that, the study said Alphabet, which is YouTube and Google’s parent company, made data for all YouTube ads publicly available. But for ads shown on Google search? Not so much. Information was missing for 33% of ads shown on search engine results.

Despite the issues that Mozilla and CheckFirst found with other social media platforms’ ad repositories, X was the real outlier.

Unlike Meta, TikTok, and YouTube, which stored ad data on web interfaces, X’s ad data was stored on a spreadsheet. What’s more, that spreadsheet took a “dramatically” long time to load—as in, up to 10 minutes.

When it came to political ads, X did offer data for 2018 and 2019, but otherwise researchers were not able to assess any other historical ad data.

“We would have needed to find an advertiser with historical data, to know already the country where its campaign was displayed, and to know already the time period when it was displayed,” the study said. “This is nearly impossible.”

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*First Published: Apr 16, 2024, 11:00 am CDT