Meta will share Facebook's political ad targeting data with researchers

Some ad targeting details will also be publicly viewable in Facebook's Ad Library.

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Karissa Bell
May 23, 2022 9:05 PM
A smartphone with Meta logo and a 3D printed Facebook logo is placed on a laptop keyboard in this illustration taken, October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
Dado Ruvic / reuters

Meta is finally peeling back the curtain on how political and election ads are targeted on Facebook. The company is making information about how political and “social issue” ads are targeted available to researchers and the public, Meta said in an update.

Researchers who are part of the company’s Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) program will get access to the most detailed information. “This data will be provided for each individual ad and will include information like the interest categories chosen by advertisers,” Facebook writes.

The company had previously experimented with making some targeting data available to researchers via FORT last year, but the information was only available for political ads during a three-month period before the 2020 election. Now, researchers will also be able access “all social issue, electoral and political ads run globally since August 2020.”

Meta is also making a more limited amount of political ad-targeting data available to the public via its Ad Library. That update, expected in July, will allow anyone to see more general information about how specific Facebook Pages are targeting their ads. “This update will include data on the total number of social issue, electoral and political ads a Page ran using each type of targeting (such as location, demographics and interests) and the percentage of social issue, electoral and political ad spend used to target those options,” the company writes. “For example, the Ad Library could show that over the last 30 days, a Page ran 2,000 ads about social issues, elections or politics, and that 40% of their spend on these ads was targeted to ‘people who live in Pennsylvania’ or ‘people who are interested in politics.’”

Some ad targeting details will be available in Facebook's Ad Library.

Questions about how political ads are targeted on Facebook have been a thorny topic for the company. Researchers have long argued that understanding how election and political ads are targeted is just as important as having a record of the people and organizations behind each ad. But Meta has resisted making detailed targeting data available, citing privacy concerns.

But that hasn’t stopped groups from trying to study the issue on their own. A team at New York University created a browser extension to help them understand how political ads are targeted on Facebook. Using the data, they uncovered multiple flaws in Facebook’s Ad Library. Meta accused the team of scraping and disabled their accounts, which also cut off their ability to use the company’s CrowdTangle tool to study misinformation.

Making more detailed targeting information available through FORT may still not go as far as some researchers would like — researchers still need to be vetted and approved by Facebook to access FORT — but it at least offers one avenue where the data is available. And, with the 2022 midterms coming up later this year, there’s likely to be significant interest in learning more about how political ads spread through Facebook.

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