New Facebook transparency efforts heavily criticized ahead of Irish abortion referendum

It will roll out in the U.S. in June.

May 4, 2018, 10:27 AM

Facebook’s latest effort to prevent the spread of misinformation by groups such as the Russians, who according to the FBI meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, is getting mixed reviews during a test period in Ireland.

The new Facebook "View Ads" feature is currently being tested there as the country prepares for its referendum to change its abortion laws and has been scheduled for launch in the U.S. ahead of this year’s midterm elections. However, experts researching the new tool claim it doesn’t provide enough information to help protect users from misinformation and fake ads.

Ireland is due to vote May 25 on whether or not to repeal the 8th Amendment to its Constitution, which bans abortion in nearly all circumstances and was enacted by a referendum in 1983. A yes vote would leave the way clear for the government to implement more liberal abortion laws.

The View Ads tool was introduced for Irish Facebook users on April 25 to help give voters more information about Facebook ads ahead of the referendum.

View Ads will allow you to see ads even if they’re not targeted at you but the ads are difficult to find. The tool also doesn’t display vital information, such as page impressions and funding, which researchers say is necessary to protect voters from misinformation and advertisers with malicious intent.

PHOTO:A Facebook logo is seen on a smartphone, Nov. 15, 2017.
A Facebook logo is seen on a smartphone, Nov. 15, 2017.
STOCK/Getty Images

“I assumed there would be a central hub, where you could search for all the ads," said Ireland-based journalist Ciaran O’Connor, who's researching the tool for Storyful. “It’s very manual and laborious where you have to go and find the page of each advertiser in order to view the ads.”

There's no API (a way for external developers to connect to Facebook data to automatically search for ads) access that would allow developers to build tools to automatically search for ads. Instead, the only way to find them is to manually visit each advertiser’s page.

Researchers say this is difficult enough to do in a small market like Ireland, but it's particularly concerning ahead of the U.S. midterm elections. A market the size of the United States would make it virtually impossible to manually monitor all of the ads.

Steve Satterfield, director of privacy and public policy at Facebook, told ABC News that the View Ads tool was introduced in response to feedback they received from people who asked to see all the ads on Facebook. He explained that its functionality could be expanded upon in the future.

“All of our tools are launched with the expectation that they will evolve, we think of this as the beginning,” said Satterfield.

Every advertiser on the platform is now required to have a Facebook page. On the left-hand side of the page, there's an "Ads" section that allows you to see all ads from that advertiser.

However, the number of likes, comments and shares are blocked out, which means you have no idea the reach of the ad. This information is freely available when you find an original link to the ad. There’s also no data on the target of the ad, how much was spent and by whom.

“Without this information, there’s no way for watchdogs to know who the ads are targeting and for what reasons," O’Connor explained.

Additionally, as researchers point out, any future developments don’t necessarily help voters in Ireland’s referendum.

Only ads that are currently live are visible and even those do not say when they were posted.

“The biggest problem is that I have no visibility from Facebook as to what ads they’re currently running in Ireland," Gavin Sheridan, an Ireland-based transparency advocate and CEO of Vizlegal, an online platform that makes legal information accessible, told ABC News.

Unless you know the name of the Facebook page that's running the ad, then there’s no way of finding the ad in the first place, he explained.

“If I was a nefarious actor, I could set up a page run some ads, then delete the page and then there would be no way of finding those ads,” Sheridan added.

As Sheridan outlines in a Twitter thread, he found one ad called "Undecided on the 8th" that appeared to be targeting undecided voters with the same pro-life messages as the official campaign page "Protect the 8th." The Undecided page has since being deleted.

The biggest missing piece of information is the financial information detailing who paid for the ads, according to O’Connor.

In a referendum on such a polarizing topic, there's been concern from the Irish government that interested parties from outside Ireland will try to influence the vote.

“One thing we will have to watch is to ensure that there is no foreign funding of either campaign,” Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said in February.

One page called the White Flag Movement has bought numerous sponsored ads related to the Irish referendum. Ads such as one that links to a video that was first posted on YouTube in 2016 by a U.S. group called Pro-Life Action League.

A fundraising page was set up by the co-founders of the U.S. pro-life group called Let Them Live which appealed to people to donate money to the group to help pay for a trip to Ireland to help “keep Ireland Pro-Life."

“How do we know who’s paying for these ads? What obligation is there on advertisers to say who they are and what they represent?” Sheridan asked.

There’s not necessarily anything illegal about U.S. groups advertising in an Irish campaign, but there’s no transparency for the end user in terms of the origin of the ad.

Facebook has promised that when View Ads is launched in the U.S. in June that it will be alongside a more extensive tool for political ads, which will include a searchable archive, provide the number of impressions, details on the demographics the ad reached, and detail the total amounts spent.

“We want to provide greater transparency around the ads people see on Facebook,” Satterfield said.

Ireland, along with Canada, was chosen to test this feature because Facebook likes to test whole countries first, Satterfield explained. The relatively small populations of the two countries made it easier to roll out the feature.

The tool will provide much more extensive information and political advertisers will be required to verify that they are who they say they are, Satterfield said.

“We have already opened the process of getting authorized, but it takes a couple of weeks," he added.

To make sure all political advertisers go through this process Facebook has built tools that use machine learning to detect political ads. They will also give people the chance to report regular ads that they feel are political in nature.

The primaries for the U.S. midterms start next week, and Facebook insists they're on schedule for a June launch. But it’s not clear exactly what this enhanced tool will look like until it's finally rolled out.

Facebook plans to release the political ad transparency tool globally, Satterfield said, but couldn’t provide details on a timeline for now.

Storyful is a partner of ABC News.

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