According to a new report from Upturn, a progressive policy group focused on the tech industry, the early versions of some of the tools that Facebook has built don't provide the depth of information or access necessary to hold advertisers accountable. “Unfortunately, we find that Facebook’s concrete plans fall short of its laudable commitments,” the report’s authors, Miranda Bogen and Aaron Rieke, conclude.
Facebook’s efforts branch into two categories. One tool, given the role the platform played in the 2016 presidential election, focuses on political and “issue” advertisements. For these areas, Facebook has committed to showing not just an ad’s content, but also roughly how many people saw that ad, how much money was spent on the ad, and broad demographic information about the ad’s audience. No one has seen how this works yet, including Upturn, but it’s been promised ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.
The other tool, called View Ads, allows any Facebook user to see a slate of the ads that any page is running at that moment. Facebook has launched that tool in Canada and Ireland, and a global launch is imminent.
Upturn’s core critique of both tools concerns the depth of access that Facebook provides to the ads. For example, when Upturn completed its report, Facebook had not announced plans to produce results in a machine-readable format in either scenario. That’s important because campaigns, for instance, might run thousands of ads. You need to use code to make sense of all of them.
In response to questions about the new report, Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s director of public policy and privacy, revealed that the company will build in the kind of computerized access that will allow researchers to delve deeply into the thousands of ads from political and issue campaigners. “We will build an API that will allow groups to learn the kinds of things that they want about the ads in the political-ad archive,” Satterfield told me.
Because the political- and issue-ad archive tool is not available yet, most of Upturn’s detailed critiques are about the broader tool, View Ads. The researchers were able to log in to Facebook with Canadian IP addresses to see how the system works.
If you go to a Facebook page in Canada that’s targeting Canada specifically, you can click on a link that takes you to a page of all the ads that are, as Zuckerberg wrote, “currently running.” That’s where the first problem Upturn identifies shows up. Facebook advertising campaigns vary in length. “Currently running” is not like a TV commercial that might run for weeks or months. For example, a flurry of tests to see what content performs the best might run for 4 hours, 8 hours, 20 hours, only enough time to gather data. If you weren’t looking at that moment, you wouldn’t see that flurry.
The next problem is that—unlike what Satterfield promised for political and issue ads—Facebook has not committed to creating a machine-readable format for all ads, so researchers (or journalists or whoever) can’t suck in that data and try to learn from it. It’s an entirely manual process.