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The Globe and Mail is asking for readers’ help in monitoring how political and third party groups use advertising to communicate with voters on Facebook. In June, The Globe took over a global project that monitors and catalogues political advertising on the platform.

The Globe and Mail

With the arrival of the federal election campaign, The Globe is asking for readers’ help in monitoring how political and third-party groups use advertising to communicate with voters on Facebook.

In June, The Globe and Mail took over a global project that monitors and catalogues political advertising on the platform. 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.

Users of The Globe’s tool can see the political ads others have come across on Facebook. Ads collected by the crowdsourcing project are sent to a central database that helps reporters learn how groups are reaching voters on the platform.

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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 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 Openpolis in Italy, and the ad collector has amassed more than 180,000 political ads worldwide.

The Globe became a partner on the FBPAC project last year and has used it to report on Ontario’s and Quebec’s provincial elections and Toronto’s municipal vote. With ProPublica’s funding for the project having run out last year, it was looking for a new steward. The Globe took over because 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 Globe’s takeover 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, meanwhile, will be providing a registry during the campaign period.

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Facebook made its registry available in June.

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.

How you can help

If you’re a Facebook user and you’d like to participate in the FBPAC project, all you need to do is install the Chrome or Firefox browser extension.

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 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.

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If you have any questions about The Globe’s Facebook Political Ad Collector, send us an e-mail at politicalads@globeandmail.com.

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