Advocacy groups accuse Facebook of 'undermining transparency' ahead of EU elections

A coalition of 33 advocacy groups on Monday penned an open letter accusing Facebook of "undermining transparency" ahead of the European Union's (EU) parliamentary elections later this year.

The coalition of groups, led by Mozilla, is asking Facebook to "make good" on its pledge to fight disinformation on the platform ahead of the elections, which will take place in May. 

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"Facebook promised European lawmakers and users it would increase the transparency of political advertising on the platform to prevent abuse during the elections," the letter reads. "But in the very same breath, they took measures to block access to transparency tools that let users see how they are being targeted." 

Facebook has drawn sharp criticism in recent weeks over its decision to insert new code that disabled multiple ad transparency tools, including a tool from Mozilla.

The tools allowed users to explore the criteria advertisers were using to target them, as well as learn more information about the groups behind advertisements on their newsfeeds.

"By restricting access to advertising transparency tools available to Facebook users, you are undermining transparency, eliminating the choice of your users to install tools that help them analyse political ads, and wielding control over good faith researchers who try to review data on the platform," the coalition wrote in the letter.

Facebook's director of product management, Rob Leathern, has said the code was changed in order to prevent the tools from exposing users' personal information. 

Leathern told The Hill Facebook is committed to improving ad transparency.

"We’re committed to a new level of transparency to ads on Facebook and encourage others to do the same," said Leathern said. "This work is important and part of our broader efforts to protect elections this year." 

The coalition of civil society groups is laying out three ways Facebook could stave off misinformation during the upcoming elections: rolling out a database of information on political ads; ensuring users are given extensive information about political ads; and ceasing "harassment" of researchers building their own ad transparency tools.

Leathern noted that Facebook is planning to roll out the political ad database, referred to as Ad Archive API, in late March, ahead of the elections.

The database will include information on the number of people the ad reached, the demographics of who saw the ad, and the budget of the advertisement. The information will be collected into a library available for users to peruse for up to seven years, the company said.

Facebook last month unveiled new plans for preventing the spread of misinformation ahead of elections in multiple regions, including the EU. The company said it will begin assembling information on ads in the European Union, India, Ukraine and Israel, which all have elections coming up.

It is also setting up operations centers focused on election integrity in Dublin and Singapore that will be tasked with identifying and taking down disinformation campaigns.

In the European Union, Facebook has come under fire for its role in the Brexit referendum, with critics saying trolls and bad actors took advantage of the platform with pro-Brexit messaging.

Facebook is facing intensifying scrutiny around the world over how it handles disinformation during election cycles, with critics saying it does not do enough to prevent bad actors from buying false advertisements and sowing discord on the extremely popular platform. 

In the U.S., Facebook has dealt with aggressive criticism for more than a year as it seeks to weed out Russian accounts linked to troll farms that sought to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. 

"Promises and press statements aren’t enough; instead, we’ll be watching for real action over the coming months and will be exploring ways to hold Facebook accountable if that action isn’t sufficient,” the coalition wrote in the letter.