Elections 2024: Big tech's ad transparency tools not so transparent?

A recent audit by Mozilla Foundation CheckFirst revealed Meta, TikTok, LinkedIn, Alphabet,X and many others, have shortcomings in their ad libraries, hindering transparency.

By  Tasmayee Laha RoyApr 24, 2024 9:11 AM
Elections 2024: Big tech's ad transparency tools not so transparent?
While the audit analyses are global parameters that were tested, the gaps apply to data disclosures across markets including India that is currently in the mists of its Lok Sabha polls. Analysts, media planners and strategists rely heavily on the ad libraries for data, spending patterns and transparency. Image by dole777 via Unsplash)

Major social media platforms like Facebook, Google, TikTok and many others launched ad transparency tools in recent years. This tools, almost like public archives let users see platforms ads, some even with spending and targeting information. Naturally, these became crucial for tracking political ads. However, in a year when over 2 billion voters are prepping for elections in over in 50 countries, a new audit by Mozilla Foundation and the Finnish disinformation research company CheckFirst revealed Meta, TikTok, LinkedIn, Alphabet (Google),X (formerly Twitter) and many others, have shortcomings in their ad libraries, hindering transparency.

“None of the ad transparency tools created by 11 of the world's largest tech companies to aid watchdogs in monitoring advertising are operating as effectively as needed, leaving voters worldwide vulnerable to disinformation and manipulation,” said Mozilla in its blogpost on the audit report.

Mozilla Foundation and CheckFirst run a stress test on platforms where they assessed whether the available ad repositories are ready for action. The results were not as expected.

Some of the major findings of the audit report included missing ads, where ads in the user interface were not found in the ad repository, accessibility issues, lack of filtering and sorting option and missing repositories for paid influencer content or branded content.

“Ad transparency tools are essential for platform accountability — a first line of defense, like smoke detectors. But our research shows most of the world’s largest platforms are not offering up functionally useful ad repositories. The current batch of tools exist, yes — but in some cases, that’s about all that can be said about them,” said Claire Pershan, EU Advocacy lead, Mozilla.

X for instance, offers public access to its ad repository, but ads are only accessible through the export of a CSV file.

A CSV (comma separated values) file is a plain text file that stores data by delimiting data entries with commas.

X includes information about the funding entities of ads and the duration of ad display.

“However, there are gaps in targeting parameters and recipient data, limiting transparency into audience reach. The creative information (the content of the ad), is not disclosed - only a URL to the ad is available,” said the report. The audit also found gaps in ease of accessing datasets for political advertisements.

Also the repository does not offer filtering and sorting capabilities immediately (though you can filter after converting the file). It also lacks in providing user assistance, offering no tooltips, guidance or feedback mechanism.

Then for Alphabet that includes Google Search and YouTube, the audit found targeting parameters and recipient data to be somewhat limited and sometimes totally absent.

Even while their transparency tools functioned better than many other platforms with their repository's reliability being high and filter options being adequate, the report points out how the lack of sorting options impede usefulness.

Among other things, the report points out how there are no keyword-based searches possible on the web repository - users may only search by domain and advertiser name.

“The repository includes a help page and tooltips, and users can provide feedback or report ads directly. We also note that the repository mixes advertisements from the different platforms owned by Alphabet without providing a way to easily filter by platform,” the report said.

Similarly, Meta's library wasn't immune either, with its own transparency gaps.

The audit report’s recommendation for the platform included ensuring complete disclosure of ads, ad entities, including detailed information about micro-targeting strategies and funding sources.

According to them the platform also needs enhancing ad data by providing extensive details on ad content, ad duration, targeting strategies, audience metrics, and advertiser disclosures.

Removing access restrictions, developing advanced search tools to allow for more efficient and comprehensive exploration of advertisements, like filters and sorting options and upgrade the API and repository functionalities to support advanced research, with simplified access and updated documentation for researchers, were also mentioned in the report.

While these are global parameters that were tested, the gaps apply to data disclosures across markets including India that is currently in the mists of its Lok Sabha polls.

Analysts, media planners and strategists rely heavily on the ad libraries for data, spending patterns and transparency.

Among all the digital platforms, Google has been seeing the highest spends when it comes to political ads. Rs. 62.64 crore has been invested in 121,719 political ads on Google's platform in the last one month. The spends have seen a year on year growth of close to 92 percent. Same time last year, political ad spends on Google stood at Rs32.64 crore.

When compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the spends in the same period stood at Rs 15.87 crore. The growth in spends on the platform between the two elections is over 200 percent.

“Who pays for ads and how they’re targeted is crucial in helping watchdogs look out for the public interest - whether that's fair elections, public health, or social justice. In short, if you see an ad telling you that climate change is a hoax, you might be interested to know if that ad’s paid for by the fossil fuel industry,” said Amaury Lesplingart, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of CheckFirst.

First Published on Apr 24, 2024 9:09 AM

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