On December 10, thousands of UK political ads went missing from Facebook’s ad archive searches. Britain’s general election was two days away, on December 12, when these reports emerged.
“We have fixed the bug and all of the impacted ads in the UK are now back in the ads library,” Facebook stated. Facebook also noted that this affected some ads in the United states, but did not state which were affected. The issue was fixed pertaining to UK ads immediately because of its imminent election.
Facebook did not explain what caused the issue. However, the incident made it more difficult for researchers to keep track of political ad spending or to find ads that had already been reported ahead of the important election. It is also unclear how many ads were affected, but it is thought to be tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of advertisements. Users were able to search for ads by ID number, however, searching by keyword was not working.
“If you’re a researcher you expect to be able to go back and check the data. You don’t expect the library to suddenly lose half of its books,” Tristan Hotham, a research consultant with WhoTargetsMe, said to Reuters.
“Almost all the ads from late October to early December are gone. In effect it is deleting the data,” Hotham said. He added, “Facebook must work harder to provide the tools we need to hold the powerful to account…Every forward step taken seems to have strings attached…It is clear that Facebook must do more to uphold the values of transparency that are central to running a free and fair election.”
Facebook’s ad library allows users to view political ads that have run on Facebook. This was an attempt by Facebook to be more transparent with its political advertisements. Ads were missing from the Conservative Party, the Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats. Facebook previously removed a Conservative Party advertisement for copyright issues, which seemingly went against its policy of not evaluating political ads. Critics argue that Facebook will have to do more with this tool to ensure the transparency works and that elections will be fair.
“Yesterday, if you looked at the ad library, it said Boris Johnson had spent less than £200 during the entire election, but it’s more around £100,000,” Sam Jeffers, Co-Founder of Who Targets me said.
Facebook has not revealed how it lets political advertisers target audiences. It has made it clear that it is not going to monitor ads for accuracy, unlike Twitter and Google. Facebook argued that it did not want to hinder free speech, but was open to changes.