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Opinion: Facebook shouldn’t block a journalist tool revealing how political ads are targeted

Many elements went into John Hickenlooper’s winning campaign for U.S. Senate this year, but an important aspect was his political advertising on Facebook. Not only did Hickenlooper outspend incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner on Facebook ads in the months leading up to Election Day by a ratio of $5 to $1, but he also deployed sophisticated targeting tactics – for example, reaching out to supporters of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and people interested in The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

That information – including how Hickenlooper targeted his ads – comes thanks to the NYU Ad Observatory project at New York University. This team of intrepid NYU cybersecurity researchers provided journalists, researchers and the public with information on how campaigns and political spenders were using Facebook strategically across the country. (Disclosure: As a consultant, I work to support this team.)

Specifically, the targeting information comes from the Ad Observer tool, a browser plug-in that allows Facebook users – 16,000 and counting – to volunteer data on what ads they see on the platform. 

Nancy Watzman

Ad Observatory does not collect nor does it reveal any personal data about these volunteers or their friends. But Facebook does not approve of this accountability tool and has issued a cease-and-desist letter to the project, demanding it shut down the tool and delete all the data collected by Nov. 30. 

And despite public outcry from some 80 consumer, technology, and journalism organizations and individuals – including the Colorado Media Project and Colorado Local News Collaborative (COLab) – Facebook is not backing down. Indeed, at a Nov. 17 hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, under questioning from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Facebook CEO and Chairman Mark Zuckerberg said his company would persist with its demands.

Why is this important? The Ad Observatory project’s data has fueled stories and research showing how political campaigns use Facebook’s ad-targeting systems in manipulative ways to reach voters. It has  provided information on ways foreign governments have reached U.S. voters with questionable content. It’s been the basis for showing how dark money groups of different political stripes use Facebook to spread misleading messages. It’s fueled analyses on how Facebook still sells discriminatory ads — despite promising to stop after a lawsuit from civil rights groups.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Facebook has argued that it already makes available to the public information about what political ads run on the platform through its Facebook Ad Library. But Facebook itself decides what to put in that library – for example, how to label which ads are political, and how to report spending — and, as Ad Observatory data has shown, Facebook’s library is missing numerous political ads. 

This is different from other areas of political spending, such as political ads that run on TV, which broadcasters must report to the Federal Communications Commission following specific guidelines. There is no oversight or check on Facebook’s providing information to the public except for projects such as Ad Observatory.

What’s more, while Election Day has passed, Election 2020 is not over. We need projects such as the Ad Observatory in place as the nation’s eyes look toward Georgia, where runoff races in January will determine which party will control the U.S. Senate. 

How will those Georgia candidates use Facebook to get their messages out? What outside political spenders will get into the mix? Facebook has called a moratorium on political ads for now, but is expected to lift it before those races.

Facebook should not be the gatekeeper to information we need to safeguard our democracy. The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are targeted. And Facebook should not be telling users – whose personal data they barter to paying advertisers – what they may do with their own information and prevent them from volunteering it to enable important research, if they wish to do so. 

Facebook should stop interfering with researchers and journalists who are studying the platform to the benefit of the public, and it should start by withdrawing its cease-and-desist letter against Ad Observer.


Nancy Watzman is director of Lynx LLC, and former director of the Colorado Media Project. She provides consultant support for the NYU Ad Observatory project.


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