Almost half of British political ads on Facebook — worth a combined £7.4 million — disappeared from the social media giants online records for more than 24 hours, only days before the United Kingdoms general election, according to analysis provided to POLITICO.
The failure of the companys transparency tools is a major blow to Facebooks efforts to shine a greater spotlight on how political groups use its platform to target voters amid growing pressure from lawmakers across Europe, the United States and elsewhere over the tech giants role in elections worldwide.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebooks chief executive, had said that greater awareness of who was buying political ads — accessed by an online database provided by the company — was the best way to fight potential electoral interference. These efforts, in part, were a response to growing regulatory demands for tougher rules on how groups could buy partisan digital messages aimed at voters.
Yet the failure of Facebooks system only two days before the U.K.s vote was a high-profile misstep for the company as it looks to buy goodwill with officials from London to Washington ahead of next years U.S. presidential election.
In total, 40 percent of U.K. political ads, or 74,000 messages, on Facebook became inaccessible through the companys transparency tools, according to Laura Edelson, a computer scientist at New York University who has been tracking digital political ad spend ahead of the December 12 vote.
Her figures included all ads since the transparency tools became available in the U.K. in October 2018, and were based on her previously scraping all existing paid-for messages in the U.K. from a database provided by Facebook and then comparing those figure to what was currently available.
The total amount of ads that had become inaccessible was also based on Edelson calculating an overall figure based on data provided by Facebook.
“This is not how this is supposed to work,” Edelson told POLITICO. “Facebook should be proactively telling the transparency community what has happened. That didnt happen in this case.”
Other experts also flagged that paid-for messages had disappeared from Facebooks transparency registries in other countries, including the U.S. The issue arose on December 9, but was only flagged to the company on Tuesday.
In response, Facebook said it had fixed a bug in its transparency tool and all U.K. political ads were back online.
No rhyme or reason
Despite Facebooks efforts, there was no pattern to which political ads had become inaccessible for the period between December 9 and 10 in the U.K., according to NYUs Edelson.
But 20 percent of all Conservative Party ads, worth a combined £121,000, disappeared, versus 43 percent of Labour Party messages, valued at £243,000 according to the analysis of Facebooks data. Similarly, 60 percent of all Liberal Democrat ads, totalling £366,000, were unavailable in the U.K.
In total, roughly £1Read More – Source