Facebook has announced it’s rolled out a basic layer of political ads transparency globally, more than a year after launching the publicly searchable ads archive in the US.
It is also expanding what it dubs “proactive enforcement” on political ads to countries where elections or regulations are approaching — starting with Ukraine, Singapore, Canada and Argentina.
“Beginning today, we will systematically detect and review ads in Ukraine and Canada through a combination of automated and human review,” it writes in a blog post setting out the latest developments. “In Singapore and Argentina, we will begin enforcement within the next few months. We also plan to roll out the Ad Library Report in both of those countries after enforcement is in place.
“The Ad Library Report will allow you to track and download aggregate spend data across advertisers and regions.”
Facebook is still not enforcing identity checks on political advertisers in the vast majority of markets where it operates. Nor indeed monitoring whether political advertisers have included ‘paid for’ disclaimer labels — leaving the burden of policing how its ads platform is being used (and potentially misused) to concerned citizens, civic society and journalists.
The social network behemoth currently requires advertisers to get authorized and add disclaimers to political and issue-related ads in around 50 countries and territories — with around 140 other markets where it’s not enforcing identity checks or disclaimers.
“For all other countries included in today’s announcement, we will not be proactively detecting or reactively reviewing possible social issue, electoral or political ads at this time,” it confirms, before adding: “However, we strongly encourage advertisers in those countries to authorize and add the proper disclaimers, especially in a rapidly evolving regulatory landscape.”
“In all cases, it will be up to the advertiser to comply with any applicable electoral or advertising laws and regulations in the countries they want to run ads in. If we are made aware of an ad that is in violation of a law, we will act quickly to remove it. With these tools, regulators are now better positioned to consider how to protect elections with sensible regulations, which they are uniquely suited to do,” Facebook continues.
“In countries where we are not yet detecting or reviewing these types of ads, these tools provide their constituents with more information about who’s influencing their vote — and we suggest voters and local regulators hold these elected officials and influential groups accountable as well.”
In a related development it says it’s expanded access to its Ad Library API globally.
It also claims to have made improvements to the tool, which launched in March — but quickly attracted criticism from the research community for lacking basics like ad targeting criteria and engagement metrics making it difficult for outsiders to quantify how Facebook’s platform is being used to influence elections.
A review of the API by Mozilla shortly after it launched slated Facebook for not providing researchers with the necessary data to study how political influence operations play out on its platform — with a group of sixty academics put their name to the open letter saying the API does the opposite of what the company claims.
Facebook does not mention that criticism in today’s blog post. It has also provided little detail of the claimed “improvements” to the API — merely writing: “Since we expanded access in March, we’ve made improvements to our API so people can easily access ads from a given country and analyze specific advertisers. We’re also working on making it easier to programmatically access ad images, videos and recently served ads.”
Commenting on the development, Ashley Boyd, VP of the Mozilla Foundation, told TechCrunch: “It is outrageous that Facebook would further deploy a tool that’s been found deficient and defective by independent researchers. In fact, the version of the tool released earlier this year for the EU elections earned a ‘failing’ grade by Mozilla, when it failed to meet three out of five of the requirements developed by researchers.
“This rollout may serve Facebook’s PR purposes, but we have no reason to believe it will help researchers and political leaders seeking to understand the scope and impact of misinformation on our democracy.”
The other key election interference concern linked to Facebook’s platforms — and which the company also avoids mention of here — is how non-advertising content can be seeded and spread on its networks in a bid to influence political opinion.
In recent years Facebook has announced various discoveries of inauthentic behavior and/or fake accounts. Though it is under no regulatory obligations to disclose everything it finds, or indeed to find every fake.
Hence political ads are just the tip of the disinformation iceberg.
This report was updated with comment from the Mozilla Foundation