Policy

How political advertisers skirted Facebook’s rules in 2020 — and got away with it

A new study shows that the vast majority of the time Facebook has made an enforcement decision on a political ad after it ran, it’s made the wrong call.

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A new study investigates political ads on Facebook.

Photo: Element5 Digital/Unsplash

Political advertisers on Facebook are supposed to identify themselves as such. That way, Facebook can log their ads in an archive and, as was the company's policy in 2020, even prevent those ads from running close to an election.

Of course, both accidentally and intentionally, not every political advertiser plays by Facebook’s rules, meaning Facebook often has to decide what is and isn’t a political ad even after the ad runs. Now, a new study by researchers at New York University and KU Leuven in Belgium suggests that the vast majority of the time Facebook has to make these decisions, it makes the wrong call.

The researchers analyzed 189,000 political ads from around the world that Facebook needed to make an enforcement decision on between July 2020 and February 2021. They found that Facebook misidentified a whopping 83% of those ads.

According to the study, 117,000 of those ads clearly fell under Facebook’s definition of a political ad, but went undetected by Facebook. Another 40,000 ads were flagged as political, but the researchers say they clearly were not. For example, some ads run by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Alaska Rep. Don Young were not marked as political, while ads for a “silky peanut butter pie” recipe and a Ford pickup truck listing were.

The researchers also found Facebook’s enforcement varied wildly depending on where the ads appeared. In the U.S, Facebook overcorrected and ended up mislabeling more ads that weren’t actually political. In Malaysia, the opposite was true, with Facebook letting some 45% of these political ads go unlabeled. That disparity mirrors the company’s struggles to moderate other aspects of its platform in non-English speaking parts of the world.

But perhaps the most glaring issue the researchers found was related to Facebook’s much-debated decision to ban political ads leading up to and immediately following the U.S. election in 2020. According to the study, more than 1,000 advertisers who had run nothing but political ads prior to the ban were able to continue running ads — more than 70,000 of them — during the ban. This, the researchers argue, suggests that some political advertisers stopped self-reporting their ads to evade Facebook’s ban — and Facebook failed to stop them.

These failures, the researchers argue, suggest that Facebook needs a new approach to enforcing this policy that is consistent across borders and includes penalties for advertisers who don’t self-report. Right now, there are some penalties for advertisers that skirt these rules, but the researchers argue they’re not adequately enforced.

“Facebook isn’t a very good cop,” said Laura Edelson, one of the study’s authors and a computer science Ph.D. candidate at NYU. “We’re very fortunate that the vast majority of political advertisers are voluntarily complying with Facebook’s policy here, because when we actually study how good Facebook is at enforcing their own policy, when they have to do the enforcing, as you can see, their accuracy rate is pretty low.”

Protocol presented Meta with a summary of findings from the researchers, none of which the company directly contested. In a statement, a Meta spokesperson said, "The vast majority of political ads they studied were disclosed and labeled just as they should be. In fact, their findings suggest there were potential issues with less than 5 percent of all political ads."

The spokesperson said that Meta offers "more transparency into political advertising than TV, radio or any other digital advertising platform," and said that even overtly political figures need to disclose whether each individual ad is political or not.

If Edelson’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she is part of the NYU team that Facebook cut off from its platform earlier this year. Edelson and her fellow researchers had been scraping ads and ad-targeting data from users who installed their browser plug-in, a method Facebook said violated its terms of service.

But the NYU team had already been working on this project, and it relied not on the browser extension but on Facebook’s own ad library. That library contains an archive of all of the ads Facebook has identified as political, along with a repository of all the other ads running on the platform at any given moment. Because those non-political ads disappear from the library after they’ve stopped running, they’re difficult to study over time. So the NYU researchers built a tool that could scrape the library every 24 hours and store all of that information before ads disappeared. That way, the researchers could see which political ads Facebook had failed to identify.

The researchers scraped the ads' content and metadata for 14 days after they ran so they could observe how quickly Facebook detected political ads that hadn’t been labeled — and if it detected them at all. When Facebook detects unlabeled political ads, it takes those ads down.

Edelson and her fellow researchers then compared this larger trove of all Facebook ads to the smaller political ad archive. To find political ads Facebook missed — which the researchers referred to as “false negatives” — they looked exclusively at pages that are overtly political because they belong to, for instance, a registered politician or political group or self-identified as a political organization on their Facebook pages. They then looked at all the ads those pages ran to see which ones appeared in the political ad archive. The ads that didn’t were considered false negatives.

Edelson argues that means the error rate she and her colleagues found is a “floor” because there may have been lots of other missed political ads that didn’t come from one of these pages. “This is a very conservative estimate,” she said.

This is something that Facebook — and Meta as a whole — will have to grapple with as the U.S. midterm election approaches. The company is simultaneously struggling to adapt to new privacy protections put in place by Apple that make it harder to measure the effectiveness of ads that campaigns use for fundraising and voter turnout efforts. And it recently made changes that prevent advertisers from targeting users based on “sensitive” topics, including their politics, health, religion and more. This, too, will create challenges for political advertisers that have used Facebook to target key demographics for years. All of it ensures that the way political groups and campaigns have used Facebook for campaigning in the past is about to dramatically change.

All that said, the researchers found that more than 4 million political ads that ran during the study period were self-reported by advertisers. That makes the problem they’re describing — the 189,000-plus ads that slipped through the cracks — a small slice of the overall political advertising picture on Facebook. And Facebook has said that in 2020 it rejected 3.3 million ads targeting the U.S. before they ever ran for failing to complete the authorization process for political advertisers.

But the political ads Facebook is missing — and the regular ads it’s removing for no good reason — still matter, Edelson said. “Ads are theoretically where Facebook has the potential to do the best. They have information about who pays for the content. They literally have a profit motive to get this right, and this is what the accuracy rate is."

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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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