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Meta says it will publish data on targeted ads from June

It could be crucial to knowing more about political ads in particular.

“At the end of this month, detailed targeting information for social issue, electoral or political ads will be made available to vetted academic researchers through the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) environment,” Facebook’s parent company Meta said in a blog post on May 23.

The company is also offering more information about political ads through its Ad Library which is open to public. But unlike the data shared through FORT, the Ad Library will only display aggregate data about the number of ads a page has run targeting a given demographic and how much that page has spent on targeting said demographic, the post revealed.

“For example, the Ad Library could show that over the last 30 days, a Page ran 2,000 ads about social issues, elections or politics, and that 40% of their spend on these ads was targeted to ‘people who live in Pennsylvania’ or ‘people who are interested in politics.” — Meta

The new policy comes in the backdrop of a new bill tabled in the US Senate which is supposed to prohibit companies with more than $20 billion per year in digital ad revenue from running a “digital advertising exchange.”

Letting researchers access this type of data could increase understanding of how political campaigns and groups are operating. It may also increase scrutiny of Meta and the way it enables political actors to manipulate and micro-target users.

What type of data?

Academics and researchers who are registered with Meta’s FORT project will have access to information about the interest, gender, and demographic categories that were chosen in order to show a user targeted ads. On the other hand, the Ad Library will display the following ad characteristics for anyone to view:

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  • Ad status and target size section will display the status of the ad, whether it is on-going or completed as well as the estimated size of the target audience.
  • Cost estimate will show the amount spent by the advertiser to keep the ad floating over the period of its existence on Meta’s platforms.
  • Impressions and views will lay out the number of people who have actually seen the ad. Impressions refer to the number of times the ad has appeared on various screens while views is the number of times the ad has been seen.
  • Gendered viewers will present a chart as to who were targeted by this ad. It is categorised into women, men, and unknown.
  • Locales will show where the ad was shown the most. In India, the locales are individual states and union territories.
  • Details on advertiser profile will lay out the advertiser’s name, their Facebook and Instagram profiles, links to some of their previous campaigns, and how much they spent on those campaigns.
    • Political advertisers must disclose who paid for the ad: Meta has now mandated that advertising agencies must give the name and details of their client if they are putting up a political or social ad on any of Meta’s platforms.

How has Meta dealt with targeted political ads so far?

In the past, Meta has given outsiders some access into how its political ads were used but restricted the amount of information that was shown, citing privacy reasons. Critics have claimed that the company’s system is flawed and frequently asked for more data.

Interestingly, researchers at New York University developed a browser extension through which Facebook users could opt-in to share data about the political ads they saw in their own feeds with researchers. The extension also scraped the information Facebook shared with those users about why they were seeing the ad. The researchers then published that information in a public archive. However, the project came to an end in May 2021 when Facebook suspended the researchers’ accounts following a months-long legal standoff.

One reason why Meta has been reluctant to share more granular targeted ad data is because the company believes it would be too easy to reverse engineer who saw what ads and infer certain characteristics about individual users. “If you combine those two data sets, you could potentially learn things about the people who engaged with the ad,” Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy, told Protocol last year.

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