6 min read
The Facebook Ad Library is part of Facebook's effort at increasing their transparency around political ads.
This post is going to ignore the myriad usability issues with the Ad Library, and focus on a more fundamental, but less visible question: what exactly can we see in the Ad Library anyways?
To start, we'll look at this overview page about the Ad Library. The second paragraph of this descriptive page contains this fairly specific description of what is covered in the Facebook Ads Archive:
The Ad Library contains all active ads running across our products. Transparency is a priority for us to help prevent interference in elections, so the Ad Library offers additional information about ads about social issues, elections or politics, including spend, reach and funding entities. These ads are visible whether they're active or inactive and will be stored in the Ad Library for seven years.
This description makes it clear that all active ads are in the Ad Library, and that "additional information" is available for ads "about social issues, elections or politics". The language in this description -- "These ads are visible whether they're active or inactive" -- is less than clear, primarily because of the unclear reference of "these."
The Facebook page describing the Ads Archive also contains makes it clear that keyword search only works on ads that have been categorized as about social issues, elections, or politics.
Ads that aren't about social issues, elections or politics will only be discoverable through visiting a Page in the Ad Library and will not surface in keyword searches.
We will return to the subject of keyword searches later in this post.
Over the weekend, Rob Leathern -- A Director of Product at Facebook -- responded to questions from two journalists, Brandy Zadrozny and Shoshana Wodinsky. The conversation was originally about the overlaps between boosted posts and ads, and in the ensuing conversation, Leathern added some details about how the Ad Library works, and about some things that the Ad Library omits.
In response to several questions, Leathern provided a clarification that should be added to the About the Ad Library page. In this Twitter conversation, Leathern appears to be very clear that, while all active ads are present in the Ad Library, only ads that are explicitly tagged as about social issues, elections, or politics will be stored in the archive after the ads are no longer active.
This clarification, while informative, raises the possibility of some clear and obvious loopholes, which prompted me to ask for some additional clarification -- because based on Leathern's description, it seems incredibly simple to avoid the additional review that is directed at political ads.
At this point in the post, I want to take a step back and highlight that I am sincerely appreciative of Rob Leathern's willingness to engage at all. This conversation took place on a weekend, and he is under no obligation (that I know of) to engage with anyone on Twitter about anything, including political ads. I see his willingness to answer questions as an act of good faith, and I appreciate his time and openness.
With that said, the current functionality of the Ad Library ensures that bad actors can operate with relative freedom. Leathern describes this as a "'tree falls in the woods' variety: if nobody knows it is a political ad, obviously it can’t be labeled and archived right?"
However, anything can be labelled and archived. Bad actors engaging in disinformation are not looking to work within the system, and they won't be kind enough to willingly label their posts accurately. This is where even a basic feature like keyword search across all active ads would be helpful - but as noted above, keyword search only works on ads that are labelled as about social issues, elections or politics.
Because unlabelled ads disappear from the archive when they stop running, this means that political posts from bad actors disappear from public view almost immediately. Additionally, because unlabelled posts are invisible to keyword search, the process of finding them in real time is essentially blind luck: either a person is served an ad when they are logged in, or they happen to stumble over a page promoting political posts.
At this point, it's not clear (to me, anyways) what percentage of past ads are available in the Ad Library. However, based on these descriptions, it's highly likely that many successful misinformation or disinformation campaigns are completely hidden from public view because Facebook is making an intentional choice to drop ads from view immediately after they stop running. A bad actor could minimize scrutiny simply by running ads for short durations. For operations focused on vote suppression, small numbers of tightly focused ads (content, demographic makeup, and geographic region) running for brief periods could possibly be both devastatingly effective, and largely invisible in the Ad Library. It's not like the dates of the US Elections are secret; a nation state actor or a political operative would have no problems creating dummy pages years in advance to use when needed.
Facebook has internal teams dedicated to fighting misinformation, and these teams also do some work with outside experts, and what I am describing is almost certainly not news to anyone doing misinformation or disinformation work inside or outside Facebook. However, this work is largely invisible to the vast majority of people outside Facebook. Facebook could increase transparency, and improve the usefulness of the Ad Library by taking the following steps:
0. Continue to archive all political ads for 7 years.
1. Expand the archive to include all ads in the Ad Library for somewhere between 6-12 months after they have stopped running.
2. Extend keyword search to all ads in the Ad Library.
3. Allow retroactive tagging of ads (ie, an Ad can be flagged as a political ad even after it has run).
4. Publish a rough percentage of the number of political ads, social issue ads, and election ads relative to the overall number of ads.
There are myriad other usability issues with the Ad Library, but steps 0-4 listed above would at least provide consistent and comprehensible results for external researchers looking to understand misinformation and disinformation within Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger.