With less than a week to go until Election Day, Facebook admitted to a problem in the system that manages political announcements on its platform. “Technical flaws” in relation to a new transparency effort that limited the appearance of new political announcements on Facebook the week before the election meant that an undeclared number of old political announcements did not appear at all. Biden and Trump’s campaigns say some of their ads were among them.
This seems bad for Facebook. While the company says it has primarily solved the problem – and that the problem had nothing to do with partisanship – the situation highlights a growing mistrust in Facebook’s ability to manage political content on its platform. Facebook says the moratorium on new policy announcements that have led to the problem has been part of its “efforts to ensure maximum transparency.” Biden’s campaign says Facebook has let them down.
“We have no sense of the scale of the problem, what it is affecting, and its plan to solve it,” Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director, said in a statement Thursday evening. “It’s very clear that Facebook was not prepared to deal with these elections despite four years to prepare.”
This is just the latest news in a series of episodes that raise questions about Facebook’s commitment to transparency in its management of political advertising, including unacceptable content found in and the opaque miracle of its political advertising. Furthermore, it is not clear to many users how they are intended for such advertising. Facebook has already taken measures to block advertising tracking tools, including one built by researchers at New York University, one of ProPublica, and another from Mozilla. So some are worried that Facebook’s stated commitment to ad transparency is an empty promise and that the platform has failed to moderate itself successfully.
“Every week, there’s a lot of bad news happening through Facebook tracking and screening,” Laura Edelson, a researcher at NYU who studies political announcements, told Recode. “The real danger is that Facebook says it can do this job for them, but they can’t.”
Last month, Edelson and his colleagues at NYU launched a project called the Ad Observatory which, in part, allows users to download a browser extension designed to record information about political announcements they have seen on the platform. The browser extension, called Ad Observer, “allows journalists and researchers to better understand the political disinformation and manipulation that spreads every day on your platform,” the group said.
But on October 16, Facebook sent the NYU project a letter to cease and desist, demanding that they be planted before the end of November. This led to it a host of Mozilla-led organizations called for Facebook to withdraw its letter and work with researchers to improve the transparency of policy announcement.
Facebook claims to provide transparency with a so Ad Library, which the company built in response to demand information about the campaigns it promotes on its platform. This searchable database displays information about active and inactive advertising campaigns that take place on Facebook, including the amount spent and the age, gender, and locations of people who end up seeing an ad. However, the conflict between Facebook and researchers in the Ad Observatory project suggests that users I don’t know much about why they see certain political announcements. Technical problems with the Advertising Library are also the reason why an undeclared number of previously approved political advertisements were not published the week before the election.
As for the Ad Observer tool itself, Facebook says the browser extension engages in mass data collection, which is a violation of the company’s terms of service. The cessation and cessation letter also said that if researchers do not close the tool voluntarily, “they may be subject to additional enforcement actions.” In fact, the company says it told researchers months earlier that such an instrument would go against its rules. He also demanded that all data collected by the project be deleted.
“We informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a plan to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement to Recode. “Our Ad Library, which is accessed by more than 2 million people each month, including NYU, provides even more transparency in political and broadcast advertising than TV, radio or any other digital advertising platform.”
But while the Advertising Library reveals some general details about the impression – such as where the ads ended up being displayed and the gender distribution of those who saw an advertisement – the researchers say that’s not enough. Many argue that the tool lacks crucial details about how those ads were actually intended, and some say that not all political announcements do in the Facebook library tool.
The recent back and forth with Facebook has led to a source of participation in the NYU project. Since people learned that Facebook had sent a letter of cessation and waiver to searchers, thousands of volunteers downloaded the Ad Observer browser extension. The number of participants is now more than 13,000, which is double the 6,500 they had signed before Facebook’s termination letter.
Meanwhile, u NYU researchers say the tool does not collect personally identifiable information and that the data of all participants are anonymized and combined. “No personal information from volunteers is collected,” says the Observatory’s website, which specifies that its tool does not collect “any personally identifiable information,” including names, birthdays, friend lists or interactions advertising.
Some employees on Facebook have suggested the utility not sure. Facebook did not comment if it had any plans to reveal new information about the targeting.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) he asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a recent Senate hearing on Section 230 on political advertising on the platform. This is a topic followed by Klobuchar as co-sponsor of to the Law of Honest Announcements, which would require technology companies to disclose more information about how ad targeting works. While the law has not been passed, he asked Zuckerberg to meet his standards by fully disclosing which groups are targeted by particular political announcements.
In a statement to Recode, Klobuchar told Recode that technology companies, including Facebook, did not meet those standards, and condemned recent reports about the company seeking to squash the search.
“As we face threats to our democracy, we need more transparency, not less,” Klobuchar said.
Other social platforms have recently become more scrupulous about political announcements. And main platforms cume Twitter, Nextdoor, and TikTok have banned it all political announcements. But Facebook has redoubled its controversial policies refusing to check political advertisements. There has been some related political advertising controversy earlier this year, including the society that allowed the Trump campaign to last. hundreds of misleading advertisements relating to the census such as advertisements containing Nazi images. Then Facebook added the option for users turn off political announcements.
In an email, Edelson of NYU told Recode that he fully supported Facebook’s recent advertising policy changes, such as the ban on new political announcements the week before election day.
“However, it is clear now that communication on these policies has not only been random and confusing, but the implementation has been smooth,” Edelson said. “If Facebook wants to rebuild trust with both users and advertisers, they need to be much more transparent about how political advertising works on their systems.”
Recent news on Facebook’s political advertising system shows that some – from academics to presidential campaigns – remain concerned about the company’s transparency efforts. In a sense, Facebook is making changes that have led to more problems and unintentional confusion. So it’s worth asking, days before a pivotal election that society has known for years, why Facebook doesn’t even seem ready.
Updated October 30, 1:10 AM ET: This piece was updated with an additional commentary by Edelson.
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