Facebook malfunction suggests its ads transparency tools are missing data

Journalists are spooked.


Facebook has experienced a major malfunction of a tool designed to allow access to the total of all political ads published on the platform. The problem has resulted in a huge loss of data from the tool, the Facebook Ad Library.

The report frames the glitch as coming only days ahead of the UK general election – and the tool as being useful to journalists and political ad transparency campaigners – whose goal is to access all political messages published by Facebook during the election campaign.

Sky News is quoted as reporting that now, not every ad is being shown by the Facebook Ad Library, and the conclusion is that because some ads may remain “hidden” – “any analysis of the overall ad campaigns will be wrong.”

Some might see this type of alarmist message as laying the groundwork for contesting the election's result in the future – but what's seems obvious is that those raising the issue are asserting that ads posted on Facebook realistically have the capacity to sway an election in the UK.

The Independent speaks about transparency campaigners, but mentions only one – Who Targets Me – as describing the apparent problem as “a catastrophic loss of data.”

This group – founded in 2017 and supported, among others, by the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations – also accused both Facebook and Google of failing users in their promise of political ad transparency. Google is said to be “9 days out of date” with its election ad data, while the Facebook Ad Library is now apparently not displaying “thousands of ads.”

It's not explained what the overall number of ads cataloged by the tool is – and the Independent's report didn't bother with informing the reader, either – other than reiterating the description of the event as what Who Targets Me coined to be “a catastrophic loss.”

Facebook, meanwhile, said it was urgently looking into the issue, without apparently providing any more details, including on how the now “hidden” ads relate to the total amount of data compiled by the Ad Library.

The Independent acknowledged that Facebook's tool “has run into some technical problems before” – as well as that “some ads do show up in the library if they are searched for with the specific identification number” – but remained hidden “at the level of the catalog.”


Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]