What big tech isn’t telling us about election ads

All over the country, voters, reporters and other observers have been going through something of an awakening about the extent that political parties are using social media to target us.

In a post-Cambridge Analytica-scandal world there’s suspicion about how we might be being manipulated.

To address concerns, the tech giants have created databases to show what political adverts are being run and by whom.

There’s no doubt that more is being disclosed than in previous campaigns, but critics say there’s still much more that “big tech” could reveal.

Let’s start with Facebook.

In October last year, it launched its Ad Library in the UK. Since then, more than 131,400 adverts related to politics, elections, and social issues have been added to the database. That’s almost PS11m worth, according to the firm.

Image copyright Facebook Image caption Facebook launched its political ads library in the UK a year ago

The library is free to use and easy to navigate. And recently it began including ads run on the firm’s photo-centric app, Instagram.

You can look up roughly how many times an ad was seen, its approximate expense, the gender and age of those targeted and who made and paid for the advert.

You can also see whether an ad was aimed at people in England, Scotland, Wales and/ or Northern Ireland.

Image copyright Facebook Image caption This is the data Facebook provided for one ad run by the Labour Party

However, there’s still much that is not shared.

We know that political parties target voters in very specific areas, such as marginal seats, but the library doesn’t reveal where exactly an ad was shown.

We also know that people are targeted by personal details – for example, interested in “the environment” or “yoga” or more political interests, like “GMB union”. But that information, too, is not shared to the wider public.

Image copyright Facebook Image caption Facebook allows users to be targeted by interests including environmentalism and specific trade unions

Facebook has previously said that transparency is important to “prevent future interference in elections”.

So reporters recently pressed it about these shortcomings. The firm said it planned to improve the database but would not be drawn on whether it intended to divulge the missing information about geographic or interest-based targeting.

When shown an ad, Facebook users can ask for more specific information about how it came to be shown to them.

The BBC and other news organisations have been trying to crowdsource the information from those targeted. But that merely gives a fragmented opinion of what is going on – an unsatisfactory state of affairs, according to the co-founder of the Coalition for Reform of Political Advertising.

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