Facebook opens political ad data vaults to researchers

Social network builds FORT to protect against onslaught of regulation, investigation

Meta's ad transparency tools will soon reveal another treasure trove of data: advertiser targeting choices for political, election-related, and social issue spots.

Meta said it plans to add the targeting data into its Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) environment for academic researchers at the end of May.

The move comes a day after Meta's reputation as a bad data custodian resurfaced with news of a lawsuit filed in Washington DC against CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Yesterday's filing alleges Zuckerberg built a company culture of mishandling data, leading directly to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The suit seeks to hold Zuckerberg responsible for the incident, which saw millions of users' data harvested and used to influence the 2016 US presidential election.

Jeff King, Meta's VP of business integrity, said that FORT would allow researchers to look at detailed targeting information for social issue, electoral and political ads.

"This data will be provided for each individual ad and will include information like the interest categories chosen by advertisers," King said. Prior to this announcement, data for social, electoral, and political ads in the run-up to the 2020 election was available as part of a pilot program. This new release will expand the pilot and add data from all ads in those categories run globally since 2020, King said.

The non-academic public has to wait until July to get their hands on that data in Facebook's Ad Library, and when released it will be in a summarized form. Included in the update will be data on total number of social, electoral, and political ads ran on a page using particular targeting data, percentage spent on the different issues, and whether the page uses a custom or lookalike audience.

King said that Meta hopes the release will "help people better understand the practices used to reach potential voters on our technologies," and emphasized yet again that Meta is "committed to providing meaningful transparency, while also protecting people's privacy." 

In addition to Zuckerberg's personal legal woes, Meta is also facing legal challenges in the US and abroad related to its advertising practices. The European Union's Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA) both take aim at big tech companies, of which Meta is an archetypal example. 

The DMA focuses on preventing companies from abusing market power, while the DSA targets advertising directly. The DSA places particularly strict requirements on advertising transparency, which Meta's announcement today addresses. US legislators have also recently introduced a bill that would crack down on large advertisers like Facebook and Google.

Big tech has been under the spotlight for how it handles advertising. Meta, in particular, was caught last year kicking transparency researchers from New York University's Ad Observatory Project off its platforms – not the first time it's done something similar.

It is hopeful to expect all of the regulation and investigation will keep Meta from these practices. For instance, less than a month ago, a study found that a Meta tracking script was harvesting data from students filing for federal aid via the US Department of Education's StudentAid.gov website, apparently a violation of the site's privacy policy. ®

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