This article originally appeared on VICE US.
A team of two researchers has created the most comprehensive visualization of Facebook’s political advertisements. Detailing hundreds of thousands of ads across 34 countries by more than 150 political actors, ad.watch is a new tool aimed at providing transparency to political advertisements on the platform.
Three years after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which user data was used to target political ads, someone has finally made a way for ordinary people to learn which political campaign ads are being posted on Facebook all around the world.
"With ad.watch, you can explore both country-specific contextual issues and political strategies, as well as broader questions about the power of persuasion that the use of personal data facilitates," the website notes. "Through our interfaces, you can understand targeting and optimization, compare monetary investment, and trace the timelines of ads."
The tool also features “stories” which are essentially guides that teach users how to use the interface and what sort of questions they can ask with it. Want to learn how much money Trump has spent on advertising "the wall" and what states he targeted? What about how political ads are framing immigration in individual European Union countries? For the first time, these are some questions we can really begin to answer thanks to the tool.
The researchers had to collect this data by scraping Facebook's Ad Library API, a tool Facebook released after Mozilla called on the company to make its political advertisements more transparent ahead of the May 2019 EU elections. Barely a month after the API was released, however, Mozilla declared it “inadequate” as it failed to meet five basic guidelines laid out by Mozilla and a coalition of 71 researchers.
"Some of the things that have happened since then, I don't feel encouraged," said Jason Chuang, one of the co-writers of Mozilla's API guidelines for Facebook. The API is riddled with bugs that are "trivial to fix" and prevent researchers from consistently tracking data associated with specific ads. "[Facebook] gave us this library, but they didn't even give us a catalog. We don't even know how many ads are there, how many advertisers there are. Even if we know an ad is there, there is no unique identifier to go back and retrieve the ad the next day. What kind of library is that if you cannot go back and retrieve the same item?"
The inaccessibility of Facebook’s Ad Library API and the ad.watch team’s own experience with conducting a similar but much smaller project in India convinced them that not only was it necessary to catalog the library but to do it in an open and accessible way.
“We wanted to map out the political landscape online during the Indian elections," Manuel Beltrán, one half of the team, told Motherboard. After submitting a report to India’s Election Commission (India’s equivalent of our Federal Election Commission) and getting no response, Beltrán said they considered going to Facebook with their findings, but “for us that was a very problematic approach because that would mean that we are outsourcing our accountability of democratic processes not to democratic institutions but [to] a private company.”
"We realized there were possibly other types of violations in countries we didn't understand very well," said Nayantara Ranganathan, the other half of the team. "We decided that instead of looking at specific questions of violations in different parts of the world, what we would do was collect data as comprehensively as practical.”
When asked if they thought Facebook would make its advertising more transparent, Beltrán demurred. "There is just no motivation because of the business model of Facebook." Ranganathan shared the same sentiment as well, saying that "Facebook at the end of the day [is] an infrastructure for marketing that listens to the logic of what is profitable in a digital marketing sense.” In other words, it is much easier to understand Facebook’s moves if you operate from the assumption that it is concerned with protecting its business model and its profits.
This is a problem that isn’t unique to Facebook; but it’s a feature of the tech industry as a whole, which is itself a feature of contemporary capitalism.
“The more hidden that all these mechanisms of targeted propaganda remain, the more effective the business model continues to be,” Beltrán said. “I think that’s the kind of conversation that Facebook does not want to have: that their business model is systematically opposed to transparency when it comes to political advertisements.”