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22 March 2019

A recent change to Facebook’s newsfeed has locked journalists out of tracking political advertising. It’s just the latest step in the company’s push to self-regulate and push back against the regulators, James Mortensen writes.

In late January, Facebook quietly made a small change to its newsfeed with very big repercussions. The change essentially prevents third parties from drawing data from the advertisements it displayed in user’s newsfeeds. It’s a change that prevents analysts and journalists from monitoring political advertisements on the platform – a crucial activity since the revelations of the 2016 US election.

While the company has made efforts to fill the gap its decision has left, these efforts are insufficient to cover Australia’s May election. Further, Facebook’s decision solidifies its desire to self-regulate, a move that leaves governments and communities reliant on the company to maintain the resilience of democratic institutions.

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The change to Facebook’s website code prevents third parties from effectively monitoring the ads displayed in newsfeeds. While third parties such as Cambridge Analytica had achieved notoriety in their abuse of the platform using data harvested in line with Facebook’s terms of service, others, such as ProPublica, had been relying on scraped data from the newsfeeds of volunteer contributors to build an online database of political ads, an invaluable tool used to monitor both domestic malfeasance and foreign interference in the opaque world of social media influencing.

It seems, however, that Facebook has decided that it is the most capable agent in monitoring political influence on its platform, announcing that it will be rolling out a database of political ads on the platform globally ‘by the end of June’. Also detailed in the plan are stop-gap measures for democracies whose elections might come before the features are added – Nigeria, Ukraine, India, and the European Union.

Australia, however, is not on the company’s to-do list. Despite Australians going to the polling booths in May, and despite the Government’s recent concerns regarding foreign interference, there is no provision in the Company’s policy to provide any transparency or oversight during the election cycle.

But even before Facebook locked out third-party monitoring, issues of transparency and accountability in Facebook’s advertising practises had already drawn the ire of Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. In a draft report handed down last December, the impact of Facebook’s practises on democratic institutions was noted by the commission, with preliminary recommendations handed down including independent monitoring of Facebook’s algorithms and advertising practises.

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Facebook’s Manager of Content Distribution and Algorithm Policy called the recommendations “unnecessary” and “unworkable”, suggesting that the company was already committed to transparency, that the commission was unclear in its aims, and that such a move would be “unprecedented” given that he was “…not aware of any other country seriously looking at this idea…”

Australia isn’t the only source of scrutiny, either; both the US and the UK have come to similar conclusions about the company, and yet Facebook has so far maintained the integrity of its own self-regulation.

Given the high level of scrutiny Facebook received after the 2016 US election, this has been no small feat, requiring extensive lobbying efforts against transparency laws in the US despite Mark Zuckerberg voicing his support for the laws on social media last April.

It seems that Facebook is acutely invested in being seen as supporting the move for transparency on its platform – as long as the company itself remains in control of what that transparency looks like.

Seen through this lens, the recent move against independent monitoring of advertisements on the platform appears to be part of a continuing trend in which Facebook seeks to set the limits of transparency for themselves.

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Indeed, despite calls for transparency being made in the context of political interference, malicious use of sponsored content on the platform is not part of Facebook’s vision for transparency. This, though, is hardly new – as far back as 2011, Facebook has been arguing against the disclosure of political advertisers on the platform.

This is not to suggest the company is complicit in foreign interference, nor that the company has a specific disdain for the Australian polity, or that the company would wilfully allow malicious actors to unduly influence the democratic process. Rather, it is to suggest that Facebook has acted counter to the values of accountability and transparency that governments the world over have been asking for, and is instead taking steps to ensure that if anyone is going to catch out malicious vectors on social media, it will be them.

But these recent changes to limit independent monitoring of Facebook’s advertising speak to perennial questions emerging across data analytics and cyberspace today; who owns the data generated by users, who has the right to aggregate that data, and can a private enterprise be trusted with the responsibility that data brings?

As it stands it seems that Facebook is consolidating its own answer to those questions, but given the upcoming elections in Australia, it might be the Australian people that bear the outcomes those answers bring.

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