With the federal election fast approaching, The Globe and Mail is taking over a global project that monitors and catalogues political advertising on Facebook.
Using the tool, Facebook users can see the political ads others have come across. Ads encountered by the crowdsourcing project are sent to a central database that helps reporters learn how groups are reaching voters on the platform.
The Facebook Political Ad Collector (FBPAC), started by U.S.-based journalism non-profit ProPublica in 2017, was designed not only as a way to inventory political ads, but to see how they were being targeted at users – such as by age, race, gender, geography or interests.
Since then, ProPublica has added more than 30 other media organizations to the project, including Der Spiegel in Germany, The Guardian in Australia and Dutch public broadcasting, and the ad collector has amassed more than 100,000 political ads worldwide.
The Globe became a partner on the FBPAC project last year and has used it to report on Ontario and Quebec’s provincial elections and Toronto’s municipal vote. ProPublica’s funding for the project ran out last year so it was looking for a new steward. The Globe says it took over because it felt that it is important to continue to monitor how entities around the world communicate with voters through advertising on the platform.
"As political parties and other interest groups increasingly turn to social media to promote their message, the Political Ad Collector provides reporters with data needed to be a critical check on politicians and third parties,” said David Walmsley, The Globe’s editor-in-chief.
The relaunch of the FBPAC tool follows the federal government’s efforts to safeguard Canada’s electoral process, including new advertising regulations and efforts to battle disinformation.
Ottawa has enacted new ad-transparency rules as part of the Elections Modernization Act. Among other things, the new rules require platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to maintain a registry of political and issue advertising during the election period. (Large news organizations such as The Globe, the Toronto Star and the CBC are also required to maintain a registry.)
The registry requirement has proven controversial. Google, Canada’s largest online advertising platform, said it couldn’t comply with the new political-ad rules by the deadline of June 30, and told The Globe it would not be allowing political ads on its platform for the fall election. Twitter has yet to make an announcement about whether they will be providing a registry.
Facebook, however, has vowed that it will have a registry available by the deadline.
In recent years, the social-media giant has become an essential voter outreach tool, due in part to its massive audience: In the first quarter of 2019, it reported 243 million monthly active users in the U.S. and Canada – almost 70 per cent of the countries’ combined populations.
In the past, Facebook has been criticized for a lack of transparency around political ads on its platform. ProPublica has reported on how Facebook’s U.S. ads archive didn’t seem to include political ads that the FBPAC had captured – Facebook eventually cancelled those ads. It also reported that the platform’s U.S. ads archive didn’t include all the targeting information FBPAC was able to capture.
In January, Facebook changed its website’s code in a way that explicitly blocked the FBPAC tool’s ability to collect targeting information, saying that it did so to enforce its website’s terms of service. The Globe has now updated the tool so that it once again collects ad-targeting information, and has improved it so that it can collect ads in the more than 100 languages Facebook supports.
Scott Klein, ProPublica’s deputy managing editor, said he is glad to see that the project will go on. “The Globe and Mail is a perfect home for the Facebook Political Ad Collector, with a team of diligent journalists committed to covering digital campaigning, smart technologists able to take over a complex software project − and an election where the tool can provide much-needed transparency,” he said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
As you browse Facebook, the extension will send the ads and their targeting information to The Globe’s database, which reporters can then use for their stories.
The Globe values your privacy, and will only ever collect information on the ads you see. The tool will not collect your Facebook ID, name, birthday, friend list, likes, comments, shares, or any other personal or identifiable information.
If you have any questions about The Globe’s Facebook Political Ad Collector, send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.