Facebook is making information about its advertising less transparent by imposing barriers to collecting and analyzing data on political ad targeting. Users now have to complete additional steps that make it harder for organizations such as The Globe and Mail to monitor how election ads are aimed at voters.
That move, rolled out quietly by Facebook in recent weeks, comes as the company intensifies its counteroffensive against regulatory crackdowns in several countries and as it faces antitrust investigations in the United States. On Thursday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University, asserting that U.S. technology companies play a key role in safeguarding free speech online, and that new regulations could endanger free expression.
The social-media giant has become a crucial voter outreach tool during the Canadian federal election campaign, in part because it allows advertisers to target their ads very precisely, by gender, interest, age, or geographic area.
The Globe is the global steward for a political ad-transparency project that asks readers to install a browser extension that monitors their news feeds for political ads, collects the ads’ content and targeting information and submits them to a database for analysis by media partners around the world.
The project has become an important reporting tool for media outlets. Last month, The Globe used the tool to report that federal political parties were uploading lists of voters’ e-mail addresses to the platform for targeting purposes.
In the past, Facebook has come under scrutiny for not making the targeting information of its political ads more transparent, leading organizations such as The Globe to create tools to collect the information instead. Last year, Bloomberg reported that the ad-targeting information Facebook showed users could be incomplete or misleading.
Now, Facebook is asking some users to complete a verification step before they are able to see information on how specific ads are targeted to them. According to data compiled by The Globe, Facebook likely made the change in September.
The company is asking users to complete a “captcha” – a visual challenge that asks people to pick out similar items in a photo or type out a sequence of letters and numbers, for example. These captchas are preventing tools designed to monitor users’ feeds from automatically collecting ad-targeting information.
The impact of the captchas on the tool’s ability to collect targeting information is significant. In August, more than 86 per cent of ads collected had targeting information. Since the federal election campaign began, that number has dropped to 16 per cent.
Facebook Canada spokesperson Erin Taylor said the change was a broad update that didn’t target specific entities. “Scraping people’s private information violates our terms,” Ms. Taylor said. "It can expose people’s information in unexpected ways, and we regularly update our products to prevent this activity.”
This is not the first time Facebook has changed how it delivers ads in a way that obscures information about them.
In January, U.S.-based outlet ProPublica reported that the platform had quietly changed its website in a way that kneecapped the effort. When The Globe and Mail took over the project in June, it updated the ad-collector tool to account for Facebook’s change.
Earlier this year, Facebook rolled out its own ad-transparency platform, the Ad Library, which lists all the ads purchased by political organizations. However, it does not display information on how those ads were targeted to users – something The Globe’s tool collects.
At his speech on Thursday, Mr. Zuckerberg addressed the debate around whether – and how – to regulate political ads on the platform, saying he’d previously considered disallowing political ads entirely, given their “sensitivity.”
"From a business perspective, the controversy certainly is not worth the very small part of our business they make up,” he said.