Facebook crackdown is pulling the plug on ad transparency tools

Jayadevan PK January 29, 2019

Facebook’s crackdown on third-party plugins to limit adblockers is hurting political ad transparency as it also shuts down tools built by organisations such as ProPublica and WhoTargetsMe. These tools were used to keep a watch on the ads running on the platform.

For several weeks now, FactorDaily has also been working on a browser plugin (using ProPublica’s open source code) to be able to track political ads and bring greater advertising transparency as India goes to polls in 2019.

We customised the plugin and were dogfooding it before rolling it out to a larger set of users. Once users give permission to the plugin, it tracks advertisements shown to the users in their Facebook News Feeds along with targeted information and sends it to a database where it can be analysed for things like poll code violation, racism and so on.

The tool has been immensely helpful in bringing more transparency in the US elections where ProPublica collected data and exposed many important stories such as how Facebook is letting job advertisers target only menor how groups mask partisan attacks behind neutral-sounding names in Facebook ads.

Facebook has said that the move is primarily aimed at preventing data leaks through third-party plugins who misuse the platform. Facebook’s director of product Rob Leathern Tweeted: “This isn’t about stopping publications from holding us accountable or making ads less transparent. This is about preventing people’s data from being misused – our top priority. Plugins that scrape ads can expose people’s info if misused.”

However, it also shuts out transparency tools such as the one built by ProPublica.

The social networking giant has said that it will launch political ads archive for India before the 2019 election. The archives list out political advertisements and information such as who paid how much for the ad. It currently works for only three countries — Brazil, the UK and the United States. Facebook has said that it will expand political advertising transparency policies and put more resources to fight fake news and misinformation.

Facebook also doesn’t freely give programmatic access to organisations that wish to access the data at scale. Its archives don’t currently reveal why a user was targeted.

Moreover, many ads have escaped Facebook’s archives even in the US. ProPublica points out a few:

This is why it is important to have third-party checks and transparency tools.