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Meta opens access to its political ad targeting data

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By Chris Sutcliffe | Senior reporter

May 24, 2022 | 6 min read

Facebook owner Meta has responded to calls for greater transparency around its ad targeting for political advertising.

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Meta is reopening research channels related to its ad targeting options

In an announcement on Monday May 23, the social media and advertising platform announced that detailed targeting information for social issues, electoral or political ads will be made available to vetted academic researchers through the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORM) environment. The data will be available by the end of this month.

It follows calls from researchers and academics for greater transparency of Facebook’s ability to target users based on their political and cultural affiliations. Its ability to do so at all has been a subject of contention due to the potential for advertisers to use those tools to discriminate or otherwise target ads at vulnerable groups.

In November last year Meta announced it would be removing targeting options related to “health, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation.” It followed instances of those options being used in ways unintended by the company – though technically not against the rules – by advertisers who sought to reach particular groups.

As an example, in 2019 the company was accused of allowing advertisers to discriminate against people seeking housing by limiting who could see the ads using race- and religion-based targeting options.

Now, Meta is stating that in addition to allowing researchers access to that data through FORM, it is also making its Ad Library tool publicly accessible. It states that that information will allow researchers to examine past instances of ads bought on the basis of specific targeting. It cites the example of a Page that bought 2,000 ads – the tool will allow researchers to spot that 40% of their spend on these ads was targeted to “people who live in Pennsylvania” or “people who are interested in politics.”

Meta’s Jeff King, vice-president of business integrity, said: “By making advertiser targeting criteria available for analysis and reporting on ads run about social issues, elections and politics, we hope to help people better understand the practices used to reach potential voters on our technologies.”

Reopening research channels

The Ad Library was originally launched in 2018 – this roll-out expands the ability of researchers to examine the impact of targeted advertising on Facebook. In the wake of the 2021 Capital Riots more attention has been paid to the unintended consequences of social platforms to act as a hub for disinformation and discrimination: while the social platforms state that they are opposed to those issues, critics note that many have been especially slow to act to curb potential harm when doing so could impact their financial viability.

In the statement accompanying the rollout of the new options for researchers, King stated: “By making advertiser targeting criteria available for analysis and reporting on ads run about social issues, elections and politics, we hope to help people better understand the practices used to reach potential voters on our technologies.

"We are committed to providing meaningful transparency, while also protecting people’s privacy. In updating our tools, we solicited advice from external experts in the academic community and civil society on how to best achieve both of these important objectives, and we will continue to do so as we continue to evolve these tools.”

Greater transparency around both user data and the ability to target ads are high on the agendas of policymakers and academics. This latest rollout is unlikely to totally assuage any concerns about the ability of Meta and Facebook to mitigate the unintended consequences of its tools – but it does demonstrate that the platform is willing to allow access to data in an attempt to work with researchers.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it had previously shut down thousands of academic-related APIs and tools. This will undoubtedly be seen as a step in the right direction.

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