There has been much concern about the abuse of paid political advertising on Facebook. To provide more transparency, the company has now opened an ad archive that should include all paid ads by political parties and other political ads ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
Facebook registers users that can post ads, such as political parties, in each EU member state (rather than for the entire EU at once). The somewhat complicated process of registration is motivated by the desire to make sure that only legitimate actors buy political advertising. For this reason, there are not many ads in the archive yet.
Nevertheless, it is already clear that the archive would be more useful for election observers, analysts and researchers – and therefore more transparent - if Facebook introduced the following improvements:
- Allow an EU-wide search
Currently one can only search for ads country-by-country. As the EP elections take place across the EU, it should be possible to search across the EU. While a lot of advertising will be in the various languages of EU member states and not run EU-wide, it is possible that some will be posted in several members states (e.g. in English or where common languages exist). For example, the party groups in the European Parliament may run Europe-wide ads (the ‘Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament is already doing so). Researchers should be able to see whether any one organisation runs campaigns across EU-Europe without having to search the archives of 27 member states.
- Remove or filter out commercial content
Currently, the ad library is full of commercial content which makes searches more difficult. If one wants to know if any political campaign in Germany is registered with a name related to the contentious political theme of “Diesel”, Facebook shows ads of the company Diesel that have no political relevance. It should be possible to filter these out of a search on political advertising.
- Allow a keyword search for ad texts
Currently, one can only search the archive by looking for organisations that posted ads, such as political parties. If one wants to see all the ads bought by the German Social Democratic Party, they are easy to find. However, for researchers issue ads by interest groups are equally important, but how to find them if one does not know which interest groups post political ads? One answer is to allow a keyword search that brings up all ads that may use a word like, say ‘climate’ or ‘immigration’. Currently, that is not possible (although the search bar suggests that topics can be searched).
- List all actors alphabetically
Facebook should list all organisations that post political ads in the European Union in alphabetic order with the option of sub-dividing per EU member state. Otherwise, any search will be “fishing in the dark”. A major campaign claiming, say election fraud, may go unnoticed because nobody searched for these terms.
- Allow more detailed search
Facebook should provide more details. Currently the US ad library provides a lot more details than the European one.
- Provide more information
The ad library currently provides very scarce information on how it works, how it can be used, what is shown and any updates that may be made. Facebook should add more detailed information to make its use and purpose easier and better understandable.
- Allow API access
Allow researchers from certified charitable non-profit organisations access to the API to carry out more systematic and automated research.