What it’s like to actually use Facebook’s ad transparency tools

A developer’s tale of wrestling with the Facebook Ad Library

I’m the main engineer for our project’s infrastructure and data collection from Facebook’s transparency offerings… I’m not convinced that Facebook executives want the efforts they direct to actually enable transparency and accountability.

  1. Technical issues. There are multiple practical problems that make getting the data impossible, difficult, or resource-draining (usually one or more of energy, time, and hope).
  2. Data problems. The data is structured to answer only questions that it appears Facebook wants asked. Does Facebook actually want to provide data that it thinks will enable accountability and transparency? Laura Edelson touched on this in their blog post Facebook’s political ad spending numbers don’t add up, and that is just one example of where transparency data offerings make it nearly impossible to answer the most simple questions.

Using the API

  • number of impressions
  • the amount spent
  • who paid for the ad(s)
  • image(s) and/or video(s)
  • text(s)
  • link(s)
  • Timeframe ad was active
screenshot of logs showing repeated errors from Facebook’s API
Logs from Ad Observatory’s API collector encountering the infamous API Error “Unknown Error” code 1 repeatedly.

Getting the actual ads

Are there any unique identifiers provided for individual ads? The link for video and images can serve as a unique identifiers
Facebook Ad Library API FAQ section discussing video and image links.
Ad from Facebook Ad Library for “Blue Line Flag” hat
Which of these image and text combinations did Facebook users see? A blue line flag or a Fantasy Island mug? We don’t know!
Ad from Facebook Ad Library for “Fantasy Island” coffee mug

Getting reliable spending data

[T]echnical complexity should not prevent people such as local journalists or concerned members of the public from accessing and making sense of the Facebook ads dataset.

Does Facebook actually want to provide data that it thinks will enable accountability and transparency?

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Paul Duke

Software engineer. Advocate for worker power & better working conditions for all tech workers. Previously worked at Google. https://twitter.com/nullvoidstar/