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Facebook will let researchers study how advertisers targeted users with political ads prior to Election Day

Facebook will let researchers study how advertisers targeted users with political ads prior to Election Day

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Specifically, in the three months before November 3rd, 2020

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Photo by Michele Doying / The Verge

Facebook is aiming to improve transparency around political advertising on its platform by opening up more data to independent researchers, including targeting information on more than 1.3 million ads that ran in the three months prior to the US election on November 3rd of last year. Researchers interested in studying the ads can apply for access to the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) platform here.

The move is significant because Facebook has long resisted willfully allowing access to data around political advertising, often citing user privacy. The company has gone so far as to even disable third-party web plugins, like ProPublica’s Facebook Political Ad Collector tool, that collect such data without Facebook’s express consent.

Facebook wants to help researchers better understand how its products are used for political ads

Numerous research groups around the globe have spent years now studying Facebook’s impact on everything from democratic elections to news dissemination, but sometimes without full access to all the desired data. Only last year, after partnering with Harvard University’s Social Science One (the group overseeing applications for the new political ad targeting initiative), did Facebook better formalize the process of granting anonymized user data for research studies.

In the past, Facebook has made some crucial political ad information in its Ad Library available to the public, including the amount spent on certain ads and demographic information about who saw those ads. But now the company says it wants to do more to improve transparency, specifically around how advertisers target certain subsets of users with political advertising.

“We created this tool to enable academic researchers to study the impact of Facebook’s products on elections, and included measures to protect people’s privacy and keep the platform secure,” reads a blog post by Sarah Clark Schiff, a Facebook product manager, published on Monday. “By making the targeting criteria, such as location and interests, selected by advertisers running social issue, electoral or political ads available for analysis and reporting, we hope to help people better understand the practices used to reach potential voters on Facebook.”

Schiff says Facebook is open to partnering with academics to “further understanding of the impact of digital advertising on the US 2020 elections.” The company will also be retaining its US 2020 Election Spend Tracker, but it will be moved to its Elections page, where it will still be available for download.

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