Leveling the platform: real transparency for paid messages on Facebook

Social media Advertising Consumer behaviour Fair trading regulation Corporate social responsibility Consumer protection
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Facebook runs the world’s largest social network. The company makes money by selling the opportunity to reach its users. Facebook delivers targeted, prioritized messages — from those who can pay — to users who might not otherwise see them. These messages vary widely, and extend far beyond ads for consumer goods.

Facebook recently announced new measures to keep advertisers on its platform accountable — including a promise to make all ads on its platform visible to anyone who cares to examine them.

On its face, this would seem to be an important change, in areas reaching far beyond politics. Civil rights groups could audit housing and credit ads for illegal discrimination. Consumer protection authorities could root out bad actors who target the vulnerable. And journalists could track how sponsored messages are shaping the public debate.

Unfortunately, we find that Facebook’s concrete plans fall short of its laudable commitments. This report details steps that Facebook must take to deliver fully on what it has promised.

This report is the first rigorous, independent evaluation of Facebook’s new ad transparency plans. We evaluated the company’s planned ad transparency interface (parts of which are currently being piloted in Canada); tested Facebook’s advertising tools and APIs; conducted a thorough review of the company’s technical documentation and legal terms; and interviewed researchers, advocates, archivists, and journalists.

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