Facebook will let researchers study its election ad targeting data

'Understanding the online political advertising landscape is key to protecting elections.'

Facebook is attempting to increase transparency around ads that ran in the lead up to November’s US elections. Starting on February 1st, researchers will have access to targeting data on more than 1.3 million social issues, electoral and political ads that appeared on Facebook and Instagram in the three-month period before election day. The company temporarily banned those types of ads after the polls closed.

"We have heard feedback, particularly from the academic community, that understanding how advertisers choose to target audiences is key to learning more about the impact of digital ads on specific events like elections," Facebook product manager Sarah Clark Schiff wrote in a blog post. "We recognize that understanding the online political advertising landscape is key to protecting elections, and we know we can’t do it alone."

The data will be available through the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) tool, which the company created "to enable academic researchers to study the impact of Facebook’s products on elections [with] measures to protect people’s privacy and keep the platform secure." Researchers need to apply for FORT access to get their hands on the data.

Facebook is also moving 2020 Election Spend Tracker data from its Ad Library to the elections page on February 1st. Anyone can download that information to find out how much presidential, Senate and House candidates spent on Facebook ads. Data on aggregate advertising spending for all pages will still be available through the Ad Library.

In October, Facebook demanded that New York University shut down a political ad research project. Thousands of volunteers signed up for an NTU Ad Observatory project to use a browser extension that vacuumed up data about political ads Facebook displayed to them.

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