Facebook under fire as political ads vanish from archive

Tens of thousands of political ads have gone missing from Facebook’s public archive less than 48 hours before the British general election, raising fresh questions over measures introduced to address transparency concerns in online political advertising.

Facebook introduced the ad library following the Cambridge Analytica scandal which led to concerns over the way political campaigners could use the social media platform to target and influence voters in elections.

The British version of the library went live in October 2018, meaning this Thursday’s vote is the first time such online information about political advertising has been made available.

On December 5, Facebook’s ad library, which includes adverts shown on its photo messaging subsidiary Instagram, showed a total of just under 180,000 classified as political in Britain since October 2018. But on Tuesday, that number had suddenly dropped by a third, to fewer than 120,000 ads.

Facebook declined to say what had caused the issue, or whether the ad data were irretrievably lost or could be recovered. But a company spokesperson said: “We’re aware that people are having trouble accessing the ads in the ads library, and we’re working to fix the issue as soon as possible.”

The disappearance of ads from the archive means it is not currently possible to gauge how much each party is spending in the crucial final days of the election campaign.

Chart showing Facebook’s missing political ads due to data loss

All the main parties view the internet as a key battleground in the election and have each poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into taking out ads on Facebook and Instagram since the start of November.

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Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of Oxford university’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, called Facebook’s data loss “hugely problematic” and said it “illustrates the problems we have around the relative lack of transparency in online political campaigning”.

“The wider systemic issue, it seems to me, is a question of politics and regulation, and why it is that UK politicians have not done anything meaningful to protect the integrity of our elections,” he added.

The disappearance of the ads from the Facebook archive came a day after social media groups were criticised for helping to spread doubts about the authenticity of a photograph of a four-year old boy forced to sleep on coats on the floor of a hospital in Leeds.

Despite the chief executive of the Leeds General Infirmary apologising to the boy’s parents, vast numbers of Facebook and Twitter accounts shared a post claiming the photo of Jack Williment-Barr was staged.

Last week, the FT revealed that more than £500,000 has been spent on Facebook ads by non-party campaign groups not officially linked to any political party.

The data lost by Facebook did not appear to be limited to any particular party or subset — ads were missing from all the main parties’ pages.

“It’s really worrying that one of the biggest technology companies in the world can’t run a functioning ad library two days out from a major election,” said Sam Jeffers, co-founder of Who Targets Me, an advocacy group that tracks online political advertising.

“Just as we hit the critical moment in the election, here comes another source of doubt about the digital sphere and what you can trust and what you can’t.”

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