Ads are not labeled as political, and some don’t even appear

The election campaign for the European Parliament in 2019 was the first election campaign in which we have had a somewhat better insight into a political advertisement on social media, especially on Facebook. In accordance to the promise of increasing transparency in advertising which Facebook has given to the European Union, the campaign has provided the public several tools for better understanding of targeted political ads. However, these tools are new, some of the policies are practised inconsistently and it is not quite clear what are the consequences for those who don’t follow the advertising rules.

In the beginning of the election campaign (but within a few days of delay in comparison to the beginning of the election advertisement) in Croatia, and other European Union member states, a Facebook Ad Library has been introduced in which one can monitor ads published on Facebook. Political ads are (or should be) specially labeled by which we get more data on them. Furthermore, there must be further information on who pays the ads, and additional information on targeted audience are available (the number of appearances, money spent, age and gender of the targeted audience and where were the ad was shown). With a few weeks of delay for Croatia, a Facebook Ad Library Report was launched, in which one can, as it is described, investigate, filter and download data for ads linked to politics and other major issues, The overall amount of spending, the spending of particular advertisers and the spending on data in segmented geographical regions is available.

Also, Facebook gave a promise to non-governmental organizations, including Gong, which it has successfully fulfilled. Furthermore, Facebook has opened application programming interfaces (API) for its Facebook Ad Library. Additional Facebook tool for better understanding of targeted advertising is an option used when one sees an ad, to click “Why am I Seeing This Ad” which enables one to see the reason she/he is targeted (because your interests are “Politics”, “Family” etc).

Facebook Ad Library Report

According to the data from the Facebook Ad Library Report, there were 4.089 ads linked to politics detected in Croatia from March to May 21st, 2019. Moreover, the overall amount spent was 84.065 dollars. It is clear that the campaign had sparked towards the end since on May 17th when the Report was launched the overall spending amassed to 48.060 dollars. The largest amount was spent by the European Parliament, which was followed by the European Greens, Možemo (We Can) – political platform, SDP (social democrats) and HDZ (Christian democrats/conservatives).

The Ad Library

In order to even publish political ads, you would have to go through a process of receiving a warrant and the approval of Facebook (the ad authorization process). There was a lot of fuss about the fact that political ads can be published only in a country you got the warrant for, and in the currency which is used in that country. Ultimately, Facebook has given in to European groups and institutions. Until May 26th, forty websites (European Parliament, European Commission, Council of the European Union, European political parties) won’t be affected by the strict rules which permit political advertising outside of the country in which one is registered. This, of course, leads to the question of foreign financing, which is in some countries forbidden by law, including Croatia. From the current ads available in the Ad Library, it is clear that European political groups advertise in all countries, yet there is no proof that they pay campaigns for national political parties.

We have noticed several issues and challenges in the Ad Library:

Not all political ads are labeled as such

Even by skimming through the Ad Library, it is clear that labeling ads as political content is not controlled enough and that some political parties do not keep up with the obligation of labeling political ads (or it is an error by Facebook). Such examples that Gong has reported to Croatian Electoral Commission (Državni izborno povjerenstvo – DIP) are: the website of the political party Bandić Milan 365 – Stranka rada i solidarnosti and the website of the Bridge (MOST) political party’s candidate Nizar Shoukry. There is also a possibility of the existence of similar websites. From Croatian Electoral Commission (DIP) we received a response which states that monitoring of election campaign financing is in process. Moreover, these political ads are not labeled as such even after our report. It remains unclear whether the websites will be sanctioned and in which way.

Some political ads do not appear

Even though a lot of political ads by the political party Human Shield (Živi zid) have been caught by the independent plugin Who Targets Me back in April, they were not found in the Ad Library (as well as in Library’s API) and the more recent ads were not even labeled as political. It can be concluded that the Library and its API are not the most reliable sources of information and that the systems need extra work and improvement. Also, Facebook refuses to enable “Why am I Seeing This” option in plugin Who Targets Me. By doing this, Facebook is preventing independent researchers to conduct systemic monitoring of the company. With this example, it is clear that independent monitoring of the company is vital and reasonable.

Ad Library does not recognize “paid partnership”

Croatian Electoral Commission (DIP) and the Ethical Commission did not see anything controversial in the european elections campaign video of the candidate Marijana Petir, whose distribution was paid by the German foundation Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung as “paid partnership”. Gong has sent this case to the institutions for further evaluation because of the suspicion of breaking Article 46. Paragraph 1. of the Political Activities and Election Campaign Financing Act. This law explicitly forbids the financing of political parties and candidates from foreign sources. An additional problem includes “paid partnership”, because it is not subjected to the rules on political advertising. Therefore, Facebook does not consider those posts as ads and they are not displayed in the Ad Library, even though it is obvious that they are a form of political advertising.

We still do not know the details on why one sees these ads

Even though we can get more information on target audiences from political ads, a great disadvantage of the Ad Library is that it still fails to include “microtargeting”. For example, as a Facebook user, you can discover more on why you see a particular ad, yet in the Ad Library, there is no data on which basis the target audience was selected. The information is available on age, gender, geographical location, but there is no information whether a particular ad has targeted someone because they were interested in something specific, such as politics, technology, etc.

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