Ad Tool Facebook Built to Fight Disinformation Doesn’t Work as Advertised

Last year, Facebook provided a seemingly simple solution to a growing response to the spread of misinformation after the 2016 elections: it created an online library with all the ads on the social network.

The ads remained in the library for seven years, allowing regular users to see who posted the posts and how much they paid for them. Facebook has provided researchers and journalists with deeper access, allowing them to extract information directly from the library so they can create their own databases and tools to analyze ads and discover incorrect information that escapes social network security measures.

“We know that we cannot protect the election on our own,” said Facebook when it released the latest version of its ad library in March. “We are committed to creating a new standard of transparency and authenticity for advertising.”

But instead of setting a new standard, Facebook seems to fall short. While regular users can easily search for individual ads, access to library data is so tainted with bugs and technical limitations that it is basically useless as a way to fully track political ads, according to independent researchers and two unreported studies. About the reliability of the file, one from the French government and the other from researchers at Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser.

American officials are already struggling with Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 presidential race and have no power to prevent American coup d’états from entering the fray as they are protected by the First Amendment. In Europe, an ambitious attempt to establish an early warning system during the European Parliament elections in May failed to issue warnings, despite Russian disinformation campaigns launched by officials to influence public opinion and participation.

It is a very hectic time for Facebook in particular: the company was ordered on Wednesday to pay a record $ 5 billion fine for breach of privacy and agreed to better manage police handling of its data. However, the measures will not help the company with its misinformation problem.

The Mozilla researchers, who delivered their report to the New York Times, initially planned to track political ads for the European elections using the application program interface or API that Facebook set up to access the library to collect data. Instead, they ended up documenting problems with the Facebook library after being able to download the information they needed in a six-week period due to errors and failures, all reported to Facebook.