Facebook promised to make it easier to track political ads on its global social network. So far, those efforts have failed.
Ahead of elections in Canada, the United States and possibly the United Kingdom, highly partisan groups continue to buy advertising on Facebook with limited oversight over how their posts are funded or whom they target, according to independent researchers and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The lack of transparency surrounding a tidal wave of digital political campaigning — Facebook represents roughly 80 percent of spending on political ads, according to industry estimates — comes as the tech giant faces unprecedented scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers in Brussels, Washington and beyond.
The company was fined $5 billion on Wednesday by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, and a further $100 million by the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission, for privacy violations. In Europe, Ireland’s data protection regulator is expected to issue its first decision, and potential fine, against the social networking giant by the end of 2019 over suspected privacy violations.
In the face of such pushback, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg promised to do more to tackle privacy abuses, disinformation and opaque political advertising across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
“Most election laws were written in the pre-internet age”— Richard Allan, Facebook’s chief European lobbyist
Part of his answer was to create a political advertising registry where all partisan messages purchased on the platforms could be accessed. The database aims to give researchers and policymakers insight into how voters are targeted online, and is now available in much of the world including Europe and India, following an initial launch in the United States.
But despite the registry’s high-profile launch, lawmakers, campaigners and academics say it remains almost impossible to effectively track how political ads are bought and targeted across Facebook’s digital platforms.
They argue that ahead of a series of upcoming elections, the social networking giant must do more to stop voters from being bombarded with highly partisan content whose origins are often opaque — or it will be up to lawmakers to draft hard rules.
“It’s important to have a better sense of what’s in the public domain and what isn’t,” said Marietje Schaake, a former Dutch politician who has called on platforms like Facebook and Google’s YouTube to be more open about political ads that they host. “Nobody is doing enough because the problem is so vast.”
Facebook rejects these claims, saying that it has done more than any other tech company to provide transparency on political ads. In recent elections, the company invited journalists into so-called war rooms where expert staffers tracked paid-for posts and potential disinformation in real-time.
But during the European Parliament election in May, Facebook did not detail any steps taken to stop foreign meddling despite accusations from the European Commission that Russian actors had backed a coordinated disinformation campaign across the bloc.
Richard Allan, Facebook’s chief European lobbyist, noted that political groups now have to submit details before buying ads on any of the group’s properties, and that all such messages were accessible to researchers and lawmakers. He also called for more legislation on digital political advertising campaigners.
“We need a refresh in the law in this area,” said Allan. “Most election laws were written in the pre-internet age.”
Online political ad hunt
Still, researchers like Laura Edelson say Facebook’s transparency tools are seriously flawed.
An American computer scientist at New York University’s Online Political Ads Transparency Project, she has spent more than a year pulling partisan messages from Facebook’s ad transparency register to analyze how online campaigns are run in the 21st century.
Her conclusions are not encouraging. Edelson says that Facebook’s current system — which provides access via a complex online tool known as an application programming interface, or API — makes it almost impossible to track who’s behind political ads, which users are targeted and how effective these paid-for messages are.
Currently, Facebook provides only basic information including gender and some geographic indications on which users are targeted. Researchers are also limited in the number of times they can query the database, and often receive different data sets when they search on the same queries from one day to another.
Due to glitches within Facebook’s own systems, Edelson says her searches often return incomplete data sets or fail to turn up any results.
Independent researchers, including the NYU team, have submitted hundreds of bugs to Facebook to fix problems in its ad transparency tools. Computer scientists at Mozilla, the tech firm, were eventually blocked from making these requests due to multiple submissions.
“You need some sort of system of independent registration of political advertisers” — Garvan Walshe, head of the elections analysis unit at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue
What’s more, the NYU academics along with four other researchers who have worked with Facebook’s tools and spoke to POLITICO said it was impossible to tell which political messages had run on Instagram — a major new area of focus for political groups and their supporters — or to analyze image- and video-based political ads.
“I am used to dealing with the largest types of datasets and it’s still hard for me,” said Edelson, who gives Facebook some credit for taking steps to improve transparency. Her team signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company that forbids it from sharing the raw data from its queries.
“I don’t see anything materially changing ahead of 2020,” she added. “As of now, we have a fair amount of work to do over a short amount of time.”
Rob Leathern, a product director at Facebook whose team is responsible for ads, pages enforcement and transparency, said that both Instagram and photo-based political ads were included in the company’s online transparency tools. But he acknowledged that Facebook’s systems could be improved.
“I don’t mind taking the criticism for the stuff we need to fix (spoiler: still a lot!), but I would hope we can move beyond ‘scoring points,'” he said in a Twitter discussion with POLITICO that was subsequently deleted.
Evolving digital tactics
With elections in the United States, Canada and possibly Britain looming, researchers and lawmakers warn that political groups are now altering their tactics on Facebook.
Under the social networking giant’s transparency push, political groups must register paid-for messages, which the tech company then tags as a sponsored message when people view these posts online.
Yet researchers say Facebook’s systems are only able to automatically label just over half of these political ads when groups do not disclose that they are paid-for partisan messages.
In one example of this limited oversight, POLITICO was able to find several political messages from the far-right Alternative for Germany that had been posted on Facebook and ran without such disclosures. The topics included criticism of migrants and other hot-button topics. Tom Channick, a Facebook spokesman, said the company was reviewing the posts to see if they had broken the company’s transparency rules.
“I don’t think the tools provided by Facebook offer the level of insight that we would want” — Marshall Erwin, senior staff analyst at Mozilla
“You need some sort of system of independent registration of political advertisers,” said Garvan Walshe, head of the elections analysis unit at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think tank that tracks online hate speech and extremist content. “If we’re going to regulate efficiently, you need a well-defined system to make good judgements.”
Researchers add that groups are increasingly creating their own media organizations existing solely on Facebook’s platforms to sway the online debate. The goal is to push out partisan messages which appear to be from legitimate media sources, while obscuring who is behind such online partisan posts.
Ahead of last year’s U.S. midterm vote, for instance, a Facebook-only outlet called News for Democracy with ties to an advertising firm with links to the Democratic Party ran more than 2,000 left-leaning ads at a cost of up to $4.5 million that led to at least tens of millions of online page impressions, according to Facebook’s political ad registry.
In the coming months, experts expect partisan operatives on both sides of the Atlantic to replicate such tactics, often relying on the ongoing problems with Facebook’s political advertising transparency. That has raised concerns the public will still be unaware when they are targeted online with hyper-partisan views.
“Fundamentally, we’re in a very similar position in 2020 that we were in during 2016,” said Marshall Erwin, a senior staff analyst at Mozilla who focuses on data security, privacy and surveillance. “I don’t think the tools provided by Facebook offer the level of insight that we would want.”