Facebook will give academic researchers access to 2020 election ad targeting data

Starting next month, Facebook will open up academic access to a dataset of 1.3 million political and social issue ads, including those that ran between August 3 and November 3, 2020 — Election Day in the U.S.

Facebook’s Ad Library, launched in 2019, offers a searchable database of all ads running on Facebook and Instagram. Implemented after the 2016 Russian election interference fiasco, the database allows researchers and reporters to drill down into ads by topic, company and candidate, displaying data about when an ad ran, who saw it and how much it cost.

Facebook says the decision to offer a deeper look into ads on the platform comes after feedback from the research community, which specifically requested more information about targeting. Facebook’s extremely granular ad targeting tools are of particular interest to researchers, who will soon have access to why certain people saw ads, including data on location and interest.

“We recognize that understanding the online political advertising landscape is key to protecting elections, and we know we can’t do it alone,” Facebook Product Manager Sarah Clark Schiff wrote in the announcement.

The company’s ad targeting systems have plunged the company into hot water in the past. In 2016, Facebook disabled a targeting option for “ethnic affinity” in credit, housing and employment-related ad categories following reporting on how those tools could be abused for illegal discrimination. In 2018, the company removed 5,000 additional ad targeting options due to similar potential for discriminatory advertising practices. And the extent to which the Trump campaign sailed into the White House on the strength of its microtargeting Facebook ad operations is still a matter of debate.

Regardless of how you feel about the tools themselves, Facebook’s public-facing ad library has been an invaluable tool for reporters, providing both issue-specific deep dives and an easy at-a-glance view of political spending by party, race and candidate. The new targeting data won’t live on the public Ad Library but will instead be limited to the Facebook Open Research & Transparency platform, which is only accessible by university-linked researchers.