Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said it planned to give outside researchers more detailed information on how political ads were targeted across its platform, providing insight into the ways that politicians, campaign operatives and political strategists buy and use ads ahead of the midterm elections.
Starting on Monday, academics and researchers who are registered with an initiative called the Facebook Open Research and Transparency project will be allowed to see data on how each political or social ad was used to target people. The information includes which interest categories — such as “people who like dogs” or “people who enjoy the outdoors” — were chosen to aim an ad at someone.
In addition, Meta said it planned to include summaries of targeting information for some of its ads in its publicly viewable Ad Library starting in July. The company created the Ad Library in 2019 so that journalists, academics and others could obtain information and help safeguard elections against the misuse of digital advertising.
While Meta has given outsiders some access into how its political ads were used in the past, it has restricted the amount of information that could be seen, citing privacy reasons. Critics have claimed that the company’s system has been flawed and sometimes buggy, and have frequently asked for more data.
That has led to conflicts. Meta previously clashed with a group of New York University academics who tried ingesting large amounts of self-reported data on Facebook users to learn more about the platform. The company cut off access to the group last year, citing violations of its platform rules.
The new data that is being added to the Facebook Open Research Transparency project and the Ad Library is a way to share information on political ad targeting while trying to keep data on its users private, the company said.
“By making advertiser targeting criteria available for analysis and reporting on ads run about social issues, elections and politics, we hope to help people better understand the practices used to reach potential voters on our technologies,” the company said in a statement.
With the new data, for example, researchers browsing the Ad Library could see that over the course of a month, a Facebook page ran 2,000 political ads and that 40 percent of the ad budget was targeted to “people who live in Pennsylvania” or “people who are interested in politics.”
Meta said it had been bound by privacy rules and regulations on what types of data it could share with outsiders. In an interview, Jeff King, a vice president in Meta’s business integrity unit, said the company had hired thousands of workers over the past few years to review those privacy issues.
“Every single thing we release goes through a privacy review now,” he said. “We want to make sure we give people the right amount of data, but still remain privacy conscious while we do it.”
The new data on political ads will cover the period from August 2020, three months before the last U.S. presidential election, to the present day.