Independent researchers are calling Facebook’s efforts to provide them with tools to study the way political disinformation flows through its ad platform half-hearted and narrow. In fact, as TechCrunch reported, some researchers are claiming the social media giant is actually blocking efforts.
Last month, the company opened up access to an ad archive API, which allows for keyword search tools so researchers can look up historical ad info. To get access, however, researchers have to pass an identity check process and then agree to Facebook developer platform terms of service.
Mozilla, a not-for-profit that developed the Firefox browser, said the API doesn’t go far enough.
“The fact is, the API doesn’t provide necessary data. And it is designed in ways that hinders the important work of researchers, who inform the public and policymakers about the nature and consequences of misinformation,” Mozilla wrote in a blog post.
Mozilla says the API meets only two of the five minimum standards Facebook itself previously set, with the help of 60 researchers and academics.
“It’s impossible to determine if Facebook’s API is comprehensive, because it requires you to use keywords to search the database,” Mozilla wrote. “It does not provide you with all ad data and allow you to filter it down using specific criteria or filters, the way nearly all other online databases do. And since you cannot download data in bulk and ads in the API are not given a unique identifier, Facebook makes it impossible to get a complete picture of all of the ads running on their platform.”
The API also doesn’t allow for targeting criteria or engagement information for its ads, which doesn’t make it possible for researchers to see what advertisers are paying for, or how effective the ads might be.
“The current API design puts huge constraints on researchers, rather than allowing them to discover what is really happening on the platform,” Mozilla said. The company also said that search rate limits limits researchers and that it could take months to evaluate ads on a place or a topic.
Michael Veale, a research fellow at the Alan Turing Institute, and a co-author of the Mozilla-backed guidelines for an effective API that Facebook agreed to, said Facebook simply isn’t being open.
“It seems more likely that Facebook doesn’t want to release information on targeting as it would likely embarrass [it] and their customers,” Veale said in the report. “It is also possible that Facebook has confidentiality agreements with specific advertisers who may be caught red-handed for practices that go beyond public expectations. Data protection law isn’t blocking the disinfecting light of transparency, Facebook is.”