For the last year, Mozilla has been looking for ways to empower voters in light of the shifts in election dynamics caused by the internet and online advertising. This work included our participation in the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation to push for change in the industry which led to the launch of the Firefox EU Elections toolkit that provided people information on the voting process, how tracking and opaque online advertising influence their voting behavior and how they can easily protect themselves.

We also had hoped to lend our technical expertise to create an analysis dashboard that would help researchers and journalists monitor the elections. The dashboard would gather data on the political ads running on various platforms and provide a concise “behind the scenes” look at how these ads were shared and targeted.

But to achieve this we needed the platforms to follow through on their own commitment to make the data available through their Ad Archive APIs.

Here’s what happened.

Platforms didn’t supply sufficient data

On March 29, Facebook began releasing its political ad data through a publicly available API. We quickly concluded the API was inadequate.

  • Targeting information was not available.
  • Bulk data access was not offered.
  • Data wasn’t tagged properly.
  • Identical searches would produce wildly differing results.

The state of the API made it nearly impossible to extract the data needed to populate the dashboard we were hoping to create to make this information more accessible.

And although Google didn’t provide the targeting criteria advertisers use on the platform, it did provide access to the data in a format that allowed for real research and analysis.

That was not the case for Facebook.

So then what?

It took the entire month of April to figure out ways to work within or rather, around, the API to collect any information about the political ads running on the Facebook platform.

After several weeks, hundreds of hours, and thousands of keystrokes, the Mozilla team created the EU Ad Transparency Reports. The reports contained aggregated statistics on spending and impressions about political ads on Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube.

While this was not the dynamic tool we had envisioned at the beginning of this journey, we hoped it would help.

But despite our best efforts to help Facebook debug their system, the API broke again from May 18 through May 26, making it impossible to use the API and generate any reports in the last days leading up to the elections.

All of this was documented through dozens of bug reports provided to Facebook, identifying ways the API needed to be fixed.

A Roadmap for Facebook

Ultimately our contribution to this effort ended up looking very different than what we had first set out to do. Instead of a tool, we have detailed documentation of every time the API failed and every roadblock encountered and a series of tips and tricks to help others use the API.

This documentation provides Facebook a clear roadmap to make the necessary improvements for a functioning and useful API before the next election takes place. The EU elections have passed, but the need for political messaging transparency has not.

In fact, important elections are expected to take place almost every month until the end of the year and Facebook has recently rolled this tool out globally.

We need Facebook to be better. We need an API that actually helps – not hinders – researchers and journalists uncover who is buying ads, the way these ads are being targeted and to whom they’re being served. It’s this important work that informs the public and policymakers about the nature and consequences of misinformation.

This is too important to get wrong. That is why we plan to continue our work on this matter and continue to work with those pushing to shine a light on how online advertising impact elections.