Ahead Of Midterms, Researchers Say Facebook Can’t Reliably Identify Political Ads

With the 2022 midterm elections fast approaching, and concerns about election misinformation growing, Facebook’s parent company Meta is again touting its Ad Library as an “industry leading” transparency tool that will mitigate them. Researchers have extensively used the Ad Library to show members of public who put ads. They can also see how much money was spent. It has even been mentioned as an example to other companies.

Researchers at NYU, KU Leuven and other institutions presented a paper last week at USENIX Security Symposium that suggested the ad libraries may have serious flaws.

Facebook misclassified political ads, according to the researchers. “Facebook misses more ads than they detect, and over half of those detected ads are incorrectly flagged,” the researchers wrote. Meta refutes this claim, since the researchers didn’t look at Facebook ads before they were ever posted to the site. These ads are not made available by Facebook to researchers and the public.

November 2022 will be the first federal election since an armed mob — fomented in part on Facebook — stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the last presidential election. Meta was criticised for not enforcing its policies regarding political violence in advertising even after the uprising. Meta sells political ads even though other platforms such as Twitter or TikTok are banning them. However, Meta is still allowed to do so for one week, just before the elections. Disclosure: I was previously a policy officer at Spotify and Facebook in a previous life.

The paper, which was first released in late 2021, identifies both significant overenforcement and underenforcement of Facebook’s political advertising rules. In a sample of 189,000 ads from July 2020 and February 2021 that were deemed political under the company’s policies, researchers determine that Facebook made an incorrect determination 83% of the time, either by flagging “false positive” non-political ads as political, or by failing to flag “true positive” political ads running without a disclaimer.

Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Meta, said in a statement: “The study itself acknowledges that ‘Facebook’s initial ad review already catches most violations,’ that half the ads our review initially missed were caught ‘rather quickly,’ and the ones that weren’t caught represent less than three percent of the 4.2 million political ads the study’s authors claim ran on the platform.” According to the researchers, 4.1 million of those 4.2 million political ads were designated as political by advertisers themselves.

Meta and the NYU researchers have had a trouble relationship because Meta used a scraper in order to gather data from the Ad Library. Meta bans scraping. Weeks before the 2020 election, Facebook suspended the researchers’ accounts arguing their research infringed on advertisers’ privacy. In the 2022 paper, the NYU team clarifies that its data collection “does not affect any non-advertiser Facebook users” and “do[es] not observe any personally identifiable information on them.” Undeterred by the ban, the researchers launched a new monitoring hub for the 2022 election cycle earlier this month.

The researchers also made recommendations on how Meta could better detect political ads. Damon McCoy was one of the researchers. SMEMeta needs to be more focused on the people who place the ads and their affiliations than scan the contents of every ad. This is one of the easiest recommendations. AllAll ads by candidates or political parties, PACs and political parties should be labeled as such. McCoy referred to several missteps in the platform’s design, such as ads from Joe Biden or the National Rifle Association.

For some countries, McCoy said, “detection could be greatly improved with just a little bit of work collecting lists of political candidates and political groups.” Meta’s Stone said this work was ongoing, especially in the run-up to elections in individual countries.McCoy also told SMEHis research team noticed repeatedly that US advertisements on Chinese state media newswire Xinhua News were running in advance of the 2020 elections. McCoy reported that they had flagged the content to Facebook. McCoy stated that a Facebook employee said to McCoy that they’d spoken to Xinhua News about the matter and that no further incidents would occur. In June 2020, Facebook banned all US political advertisements by foreign media outlets after multiple alerts.

Facebook has also made one other change to its policies since the 2020 election cycle: It now “might” allow “commercial advertisers” to refrain from labeling ads about social issues, if the core ad is about a service or product. The exception does not apply to ads which explicitly refer to politics and elections. The researchers discovered that companies were subject to a lot of enforcement. However, it can also result in meaningful underenforcement. Now, advertisers can theoretically circumvent transparency requirements by making their ad that says “abortion is murder” — which would require a disclosure — into an ad for a t-shirt that says “abortion is murder,” which no longer necessarily does.

Stone said it would not be accurate to assume an “abortion is murder” t-shirt would be exempt from authorization and disclosure requirements, and noted the company’s policy regarding merchandise ads is to assess the primary purpose of the ad.

But the problem goes beyond theoretical. After browsing the Ad Library for a few minutes, you can be out of your mind. SMEThere were four ads that we found with no disclaimers and which appeared to serve a primary purpose in social issues advocacy.

One, an ad for a t-shirt that says “Put The FBI On The FBI Watch List,” was promoted by the conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, who is most recently known for receiving a pardon from President Donald Trump and making a documentary challenging the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. The text of the ad said: “When freedom is being challenged in all conceivable ways, true PATRIOTS will not sit down and just let such come to pass.”

Two others related to abortion: one said “It’s Not About Abortion. It’s About Control.” It followed in much smaller text with a link to buy pro-choice merch. Another, announcing “YOU CAN SAVE BABIES!” encouraged people to sponsor other pregnant people’s ultrasounds to encourage them not to choose abortion.After reviewing the images, Stone said, “They should have had disclaimers and we’ve enforced against them.”

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