Facebook's ad blocking fix also stymies political ad watchdogs

By January 28, 2019Advertising
Watchdogs have found their election ad monitoring tools no longer work on Facebook. Credit: Illustration by Ad Age, Composite image Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In the wake of recent updates to how much data Facebook allows third parties to access, Pro Publica, the nonprofit journalism project, is saying that the social network has made it impossible to collect information about how political ads get targeted to different people.

Meanwhile,Facebook has countered that it made changes to stay ahead of ad blockers and more nefarious web crawlers.

Pro Publica and other organizations have built plug-ins that allowed users to share data from political ads they see on Facebook. The Pro Publica plug-in logged what ads were shown and what targeting criteria advertisers used.

For instance, Pro Publica users would take note of which advertisers targeted people who like certain pages, share certain interests, or are in a certain age range, among other criteria. Pro Publica says about 16,000 people used its plug-in to help its research.

Facebook defended the security tightening as in the interest of its users.

“Plugins that scrape ads can expose people’s info if misused,” said Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product. “This isn’t about stopping publications from holding us accountable or making ads less transparent. “

Facebook had signaled to Pro Publica in August that it would make changes for security purposes that could have an impact on their tool.

In response to abuse of its services by bad actors that spread misinfomation during the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook launched its most significant election ad transparency effort last year with an archive that publicly shows every political and issue-based ad that runs on the social network. Twitter and Google also built their own archives.

Facebook’s ad archive shows the political ads and reveals the sponsor, how much they spent and general targeting information, but not with the same granularity that Pro Publica and other groups had been able to detect. When a Facebook user sees the political ad in their News Feed, the person can click on it to see what criteria the advertiser used. Pro Publica’s tool automated that process to gather the data from thousands of people.

Facebook declined to comment on why the archive doesn’t reveal more targeting data and provide the information that watchdogs could use without needing such plug-ins

On Monday, the company did say it would expand the ad archive to more countries by the end of June.

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