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Facebook lacks recognition of political ads

Sunday, 19. December 2021 – 16:09 Update: 19-12-2021 16:09

In the US and New Zealand, Facebook excels at filtering ads properly. Only 1 percent escape there. In the United States it is still ten thousand ads. Facebook has the worst rating in Malaysia, where 45 percent is under radar. Belgium ranks 28th out of 58 countries surveyed, almost nine percent.

“Facebook has failed to find unannounced political ads from every Belgian political party,” said Victor Le Pochat, a domain researcher and FWO candidate for imec-DistriNet (KU Leuven). Globally, Facebook has been bad at distinguishing between political and non-political advertising. Thus, in the end, both users and advertisers on Facebook are misled: it is not clear whether an ad was actually politically charged or removed because the ads were believed to be political.

Political ads

Facebook came up with its own rules in 2018 for “advertising about social issues, elections or politics”. The Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. election brought with it many criticisms of how widespread the spread of colorful information or misinformation on social media can be. Henceforth, political advertisements will have a label indicating who is paying. Facebook relies mainly on civic sentiment, and expects advertisers to refer to themselves as whether their ads are about social issues, elections, or politics. But not all advertisers do that. An algorithm tries to identify those unannounced ads. This study shows the different levels of success.

Facebook may take some simple steps to improve the detection of political ads, but has already pointed out that this is not the case.

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Limitations of screening can be detrimental in two stages. You have false negatives, they are unrecognized political advertisements. These affect Facebook’s credibility and its own terms. At the same time, they open the door to malicious advertising and misinformation. But Facebook misrecognizes many ads as political, false positives. It also undermines confidence in how well the platform enforces the rules, and ensures that important social information about COVID-19 does not reach the public.


Researchers are also making recommendations that could be useful for ongoing legislation in both the European Union (e.g. Digital Services Act) and the United States. The researchers’ recommendations are aimed at ensuring that Facebook complies with its own rules. So Facebook is definitely:

The pages of parties, candidates and political organizations should be closely monitored and all their advertisements should be marked as political advertisements;
Imposing consequences for violating rules such as taking pages offline or placing ads;
Invest adequately in an organization that operates globally and takes into account the local environment. Facebook should therefore engage in discussions with local government, local regulators and organizations; Clarify what they mean by “political” advertising.

Researcher Victor Le Pochat (KU Leuven) says: “Facebook may take some simple steps to improve the detection of political ads, but it has not shown much support.”