Breaking Facebook’s advertising black box

German newsrooms are collaborating to bring hidden Facebook ads out into the open.

Freia Nahser
Oct 12, 2017 · 8 min read

‘Algorithms play an increasingly important role in our societies. They influence the results of search engines, how we move in traffic, and how police officers operate. The mechanisms behind these systems are crucial, but most people are completely unaware how they work.’

Christina Elmer, head of data journalism at Spiegel Online believes that it is therefore up to journalists to make the workings of algorithms transparent, as well as classifying, and evaluating them. According to Elmer, newsrooms have some catching up to do in this field, as most journalists lack the skills, making collaborations with experts and researchers on a national and international level all the more important.

Süddeutsche Zeitung, Spiegel Online and Tagesschau recently joint forces with ProPublica to collect and bring to light targeted Facebook ads that were disseminated through algorithms in the run-up to the German federal elections. We talked to Christina Elmer and Jannis Brühl, head of tech news at Süddeutsche Zeitung, about their findings.

Facebook only: if you’re not on the list, you’re not coming in

Algorithms have played an unfortunate role in election campaigns, most notably in the United States. The Trump campaign allegedly targeted African Americans with Facebook posts claiming ‘Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators’ in an effort to ‘dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out’.

Unfortunately, there is no way of telling if such an ad was ever actually released, as ‘dark posts’ are only visible to the specific groups targeted for a very limited amount of time.

This makes them near impossible to trace, whilst giving political parties and propagandists free range to be as disingenuous as is fitting to their cause, making political campaigning particularly murky.

On other communications channels, such as television or radio, such content is likely to be regulated and blocked. On Facebook, if you’re on the target list, you can pretty much receive anything, and nobody ever has to find out.

‘Dark ad’ from the Scottish National Party targeting Facebook user groups with an average age of 22. Source: BBC

The propaganda problem from abroad

Last month, the Washington Post reported that between June 2015 and May 2017, $100,000 of ad spending for 3,300 ads was connected to 470 inauthentic accounts, which were affiliated with each other and likely to be operating out of Russia. According to Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, the messages ‘appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights’. According to Facebook figures, these targeted ads reached 10 million users, but new research suggests that Russian propaganda may have been shared hundreds of millions of times organically through ‘likes’ and viral Facebook posts.

These unmonitored messages could have had a significant impact on the results of the elections and further underline the opaque power of Facebook advertising and propagation.

How did targeted ads influence the German elections?

Last month, Mark Zuckerberg said:

‘We have been working to ensure the integrity of the German elections.’

The German elections this year have received a lot of international attention partly due to the growing influence of the anti-immigration far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and because they are being widely viewed as a ‘referendum’ on Angela Merkel’s 12-year chancellorship.

In the run-up to the vote, US researchers at ProPublica in collaboration with Spiegel Online, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Tagesschau unveiled a crowdsourcing project to keep tabs on the ads that German voters were receiving on Facebook.

Bringing campaigning back into the public sphere

The aim of the project, says Elmer was to make election campaigns more transparent through shedding light on the most opaque parts of the communications strategies used by political parties:

  • Are they using Facebook’s targeting tools to close in on specific demographics?
  • How micro do they go in terms of targeting?

Spiegel Online, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Tagesschau readers were asked to install a tool to their web browser, which would collect ads displayed on their Facebook news feeds whenever they logged on. It would then guess which ones are politically motivated through an algorithm built by ProPublica.

Crowdsourcing is of key importance in this type of investigation, as it allows journalists to get an idea of how an algorithm operates, and according to which criteria it functions in a large number of different cases. Elmer says that without information from the public, journalists have ‘little to no information about the workings of certain algorithms as they do not receive information about them upon request’.

AfD targeted ad. Source: ProPublica. Translation: ‘Angela Merkel is responsible for open borders which have allowed millions of migrants into the country. This has led to terrorist attacks, an increase in sexual harassment, higher crime rates, and spending of billions of Euros. Vote for change, take your country back. Vote AfD. You have seen this ad, because the AdD wants to reach people who like its page. You are 18+ and live in Germany’

The results are tame

ProPublica collected around 600 ads and has since made them open to the public with an explanation of who was targeted alongside every ad.

One benefit of this is that interested parties are able to access ads that they would never have normally seen, bringing this hidden element of campaigning back into the public sphere.

Overall, there was no evidence of ads being significantly tailored to micro-target certain demographics, but targeting was kept more general:

  • Evidence of clear regional targeting: Parties targeted large groups of people in specific regions when they were hosting events in the area.
  • Age targeting: Parties mostly targeted people who are eligible to vote: 18+.
Targeted ad for concert organised by Green Party in Munich posted by Dieter Janecek (cropped)

What is particularly striking about the results, according to Brühl, is how the popularity of social media has completely changed the face of political campaigning. Previously, campaigns were mostly carried out by political parties — noticeably through the huge ‘Wahlplakat’ (campaign posters), which populate German towns and cities around election time. Through the internet, the campaigning sphere has been significantly opened up, introducing new players such as NGO’s, who can place ads for candidates. Politically motivated individuals, small parties and micro-parties also have a broader reach through Facebook than would have been possible through door-to-door campaigning.


Most notably, election campaigns are now also vulnerable to interference from abroad, where ‘theoretically, an individual in Timbuktu could try to influence German voters from his living room’ says Brühl.

The research does not contain any evidence of non-German actors trying to influence the outcome of the election, and overall, Brühl characterises the content of the ads surfaced as ‘harmless’. There was some evidence of a smear campaign against the Green Party originating from an unknown blog, which has since shut down.

Things to consider

  • The extension was only available on Chrome and Firefox on desktop. 84% of Facebook’s advertising revenue comes from mobile.
  • Readers of the three partnering news organisations, who can broadly be described as left leaning, do not represent the German population as a whole.
  • The project relies on volunteers, who we can assume to be more politically aware than the bulk of the population?

Who targets me? The AfD?

The UK firm Who Targets Me collaborated with BuzzFeed News Germany and to put into action a similar crowdsourcing initiative focusing particularly on the targeting practices of the AfD. They previously extensively researched the use of ‘dark ads’ in the general election in the UK, as well as the Scottish and Brexit referendums.

While ProPublica’s aim was to see if parties were using targeted ads, Who Targets Me took a closer look at the content the AfD was disseminating, and which demographics were exposed to it.

They found that the main groups of people targeted by the AfD were people who had marked themselves as interested in:

  • Angela Merkel
  • FDP
  • Liberalism
  • NachDenkSeiten (a website which comments on politics)

Content of the ads was also analysed and matched to the groups targeted:


Facebook’s ad transparency initiative

Zuckerberg said that political advertisers will soon have to add disclosures to Facebook ads, to clearly show the source from which the ad originates. This is a practice they previously deemed ‘inconvenient and impracticable’ given the small sizes of the ads, according to an article by ProPublica. Zuckerberg also said that Facebook will require political advertisers to place all currently running ads on their pages, which could mean the end of opaque advertising strategies. In the same article, Julia Angwin underlines that ‘the word ‘currently’ suggest that such disclosure would be ‘fleeting’ and since ‘campaigns can run dozens, hundreds or even thousands of variations of a single ad, it will be interesting to see whether and how they manage to display all those ads on their pages simultaneously’.

Elmer says that the initiative should be ‘welcomed’ and that it will be ‘exciting to see how Facebook will define which ads are political’. She underlines that even with these measures put in place, Facebook will still lack an overview of all political ads and how they are targeted, concluding ‘Journalists still have a lot of work to do’.

Keep your eyes peeled

If you are interested in the topic, Christina Elmer recommends you to take a look at:

About Christina Elmer

Christina Elmer studied Journalism and Biology in Dortmund. She joined Spiegel Online in 2013 and became head of data journalism in June 2016. She is also a board member of netzwerk recherche e.V., a German Association of Investigative Journalists.

About Jannis Brühl

Jannis Brühl was an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at ProPublica. He is now head of the tech news department at Süddeutsche.

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