Bugs Plague Facebook’s Anti-Misinformation Platform; Researchers Call It ‘Useless’

Plagued with controversies surrounding the 2016 Presidential Elections and the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal that costs Facebook $5 billion fine from the FTC, the Silicon Valley company has launched a platform to fight against political misinformation; a practice that Facebook was alleged to enable through an ad library that would “transparently” show what ads are run by whom.

However, researchers have found out that Facebook Ad Library, which archives ad campaigns run on the platform for up to seven years, is riddled with bugs, effectively rendering the platform ineffective and “useless.”

Following the 2016 Election that elected President Donald Trump to office, Facebook has been the center of many controversies accusing the social media giant as an enabler of misinformation and fake news with misleading political ads allowed to run by the company. These deceptive, fraudulent, and politically biased advertisements were said to have made a significant influence on the results of the elections by socially engineering public opinions.

To remedy this, Facebook came up with a seemingly straightforward solution last year. The platform launched an ad library in 2018 as they believe that “transparency is the best disinfectant” against misinformation.

“Civil rights are the foundation of a free and just society — and something we care deeply about as a company. We want to make sure we’re advancing civil rights on our platform,” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote in a statement.

As part of their program, Facebook gave researchers and journalists deeper access to the library — to empower them to analyze the ads through their tools. “We know we can’t protect elections alone,” Facebook said when it launched the latest version of its Ad Library in March. “We’re committed to creating a new standard of transparency and authenticity for advertising.”

Riddled with bugs

But two independent studies, one from the French government and another from researchers from Mozilla, proved that the ad library is not working as it intends to be. The studies have unanimously agreed that access to the ad library’s data is plagued with many bugs and several technical constraints that make it ineffective in extracting enough data to analyze political ad behavior.

The researchers from Mozilla, the creator of the popular browser, Firefox, said that the initial intention for their study is to analyze political ads (as promised by Facebook that they could) using the program’s application program interface (API) that gives researchers access to Facebook’s ad data. The team was surprised to gather only today’s data in a span of six weeks extracting information due to several bugs encountered. Some technical constraint also disabled the researchers from locating their desired information, all of which were reported to Facebook.

Jason Cheung, a researcher from Mozilla, has documented back-and-forth conversation with Facebook after the ad library crashes every time it reaches a search beyond 59 pages. In the end, Facebook told Cheung that the bug that caused the crash was “unfortunately, a won’t fix for now.”

The representative added, “We wait for improvement to arrive in the long term, and we’ll keep tracking it internally.” A few days after, Facebook, through a different representative in a separate message thread, said that they have already fixed the bug and the search won’t crash anymore. However, Cheung said that until this week, the search results still hit.

And researchers have also been reporting more and more bugs to Facebook, which lead to them being blocked for “reporting too many.”

The ad library is Facebook’s bid to recover its reputation amidst the controversies it faced in the past few years. In fact, Satwik Shukla, a Facebook product manager, said,” We were the first to introduce this level of ads transparency, and it remains a priority,” adding that the social media platform is working hard to address the issues in the ad library’s API.

“[Facebook] continually seeks feedback from researchers and journalists,” he said.

Aside from the ad library, Facebook recently promised to heighten policing against misinformation, as the 2020 Elections draw closer. For one, the company has launched a civil rights task force that is committed to safeguarding the integrity of the 2020 census.

“With both the US Census and the US presidential elections, 2020 will be a big year. An accurate census count is crucial to governments for functions like distributing federal funds and to businesses and researchers. That’s why we’re going to treat next year’s census like an election — with people, policies and technology in place to protect against census interference,” Facebook promises.

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