We all know Facebook has been under intense scrutiny lately from many corners, so much that the network has put major efforts into increasing transparency around how it advertises to users. The centerpiece of that initiative is the Ad Library, a searchable database of all ads run on the network. (The same information can also be found on any individual Page, under the Page Transparency section.) So what can you learn from this new tool, and why should you even care?
The first new set of valuable data Facebook is making fully-public – you don’t even need an account or to be logged in – is called the Page Transparency Summary, and contains vital stats on the Page: its owner, owner’s location, creation date, any name changes or mergers the Page has undergone, and the country location of any Managers of the Page. (This is clearly a nod to the concern that apparently-domestic pages may be managed by covert, foreign actors.)
If you’re concerned that a page isn’t what it seems to be, this section may help clear up the case.
The Ad Library allows any visitor to view all active ads placed by a Page, with the ability to see the ad run dates, content of the ads, and report anything suspicious.
For political and social issue ads, Facebook goes one step further: visitors can see individual ad spends as well as the total spent by the Page on such ads. (You can also view both active and inactive political ads.)
It also bears mentioning that users can see additional information on Page ads when viewing the ads themselves in their feeds, under the Why Am I Seeing This Ad? tab. That section connects the targeting parameters of the ad campaign to your data, letting you know how the Page targeted you. (This may become increasingly valuable as more advertisers use features like Facebook’s Custom Audience Tool, which allows them to target individual Facebook users’ news feeds using the advertiser’s own lists of contact information like email, phone number, and address.)
If you’re wondering how and why advertisers are targeting you and others with ads, this section has answers for you.
Scrutiny over election interference isn’t the only criticism being leveled at Facebook: groups representing lenders, employees, and people in search of housing are also crying foul at the way Facebook allows advertisers to target their ads to (only) certain people for housing, jobs, and credit, excluding others – potentially in violation of the Fair Housing Act and other anti-discrimination laws.
So in 2019 Facebook rolled out new restrictions on certain ads in what it called Special Ad Categories: housing, employment, and credit ads. In these categories, advertisers won’t be able to target their ads based on “age, gender, ZIP code, multicultural affinity, or any detailed options describing or appearing to relate to protected characteristics,” according to Facebook, and they won’t have access to the Lookalike Audience feature, which typically allows advertisers to choose targeted audiences that “look like” their best existing customers. (Instead, advertisers are able to using Special Ad Audience targeting that excludes filters like location, age, gender, and some demographic, behavior and interest options.)
If you’re looking for housing, a job, or to borrow money, Facebook has changed its policies to deter advertisers from discriminating against you by showing, or not showing you, certain ads based on your location, age, gender, race, religion, military status, disability status, national origin, or sexual orientation.
Facebook’s new transparency tools may not quell all concerns about the network’s oversized influence on our politics and culture, but they definitely offer some benefits to end users as well as brands that are looking to understand how similar businesses, including their competitors, are using Facebook to advertise. For example, a brand might want to:
Transparency is never a fix-all, but in this case it may empower Facebook users and the general public to better-inform themselves when it comes to how their data is being used to target them with advertisements. Whether that leads to less, or rather more, scrutiny on Facebook remains to be seen.