Facebook political advertising rules block transparency NGOs


In January 2019, the British transparency NGO WhoTargetsMe, Mozilla, and the US investigative journalism site Pro Publica reported that recent changes in the social network's code were restricting their ability to monitor political ads on Facebook. The company said the changes were part of a crackdown on third-party plug-ins such as ad blockers and ad scrapers accessing data on the site without authorisation; however, the 20,000 users of WhoTargetsMe's plug-in had specifically chosen to share their data with the NGO. While the tools were active, WhoTargetsMe showed that at the end of the 2017 campaign Conservatives focused on personal criticism of shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, and used a loophole in electoral law to campaign on local issues through targeted Facebook ads without breaking spending limits. The tool has also helped the NGO monitor elections in Ireland and Germany. Pro Publica had been able to expose methods used by oil companies to bypass Facebook's transparency tools, and uncovered ads not included in Facebook's database from the National Rifle Association and several other activist groups. In August 2018, Pro Publica was warned by Facebook ads product management director Rob Leathern that the company intended to "transition" Pro Publica away from its tools. WhoTargetsMe believes Facebook is actively trying to block its project at a time when more than a third of the world's population will be in areas participating in elections. In the US, the Honest Ads Act would make transparency in Facebook ads a legal requirement.


Writer: Jim Waterson; Jeremy B. Merrill and Ariana Tobin
Publication: Guardian; Pro Publica

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