May 28, 2024

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A newly released report alleges Big Tech’s ad transparency tools are failing across the board — with X scoring the worst at providing meaningful data that can help users, journalists, and advocates keep a watchful eye on scams and disinformation.

If “ad transparency” isn’t a familiar term, that’s probably because it’s a somewhat counterintuitive concept. With TV ads, you generally know the sponsor — it’s announced front and center. Digital ads are more slippery. Even when the fact that something is an ad is disclosed, exactly who is advertising what, and why still may not be clear. If a platform fails to provide robust digital ad transparency information to those who request it, it’s harder to track hoaxes and scrutinize sketchy or scammy ad practices.

A report ‘stress-testing’ tech platforms’ ad repositories

The digital survey was conducted by Mozilla and CheckFirst, a software solutions company providing tools to counter and monitor disinformation. It analyzed a dozen ad transparency tools created by tech platforms to aid advertising monitors, including those on X, TikTok, LinkedIn, Alphabet’s Google Search, and Meta and Apple sites. Using guidelines from the European Union’s 2023 Digital Services Act (DSA) and Mozilla’s in-house ad library guidelines, the organizations scanned the platforms’ ad repositories for things like public availability, the contents of advertisements, payer details, and user targeting details.  

“Ad transparency tools are essential for platform accountability — a first line of defense, like smoke detectors,” said Mozilla EU advocacy lead Claire Pershan. “But our research shows most of the world’s largest platforms are not offering up functionally useful ad repositories. The current batch of tools exist, yes — but in some cases, that’s about all that can be said about them.”

Not one of the analyzed advertising repositories tested well, and few if any were easy to find to begin with. Before researchers can even begin testing whether ad transparency measures are accurate, they must wade through incompatible, opaque services, the report explains. 

X stood out as the worst scorer on data accessibility and search capabilities, only providing watchdogs with a single CSV file. “X’s transparency tools are an utter disappointment,” explained Pershan. “Its repository offers no filtering and sorting capabilities; ads can only be accessed through a cumbersome CSV export file; the content of ads is not disclosed (only a URL to the ads), and there are gaps in targeting parameters and recipient data. And searching for historical content is nearly impossible. All this may be why the European Commission has included X’s ad repository in its formal proceedings against the platform under the DSA.”

The report also found common, glaring gaps in ad transparency tools across the board, including:

  • Ads missing from repositories that were visible to users. 

  • Inconsistent public access to ad information.

  • Poor search functions impeding ad oversight.

Another concerning fact: “Only a handful of the platforms analyzed have a repository for branded or influencer content, even though many allow for influencer content on their services,” the researchers report.

The ups and downs of the advertising landscape 

These figures are especially worrisome in a contentious election year, one that is already stoking fear about intentional disinformation campaigns, the role of AI, and the influence of Big Tech leaders on candidate advertising and voter awareness. 

Last year, X CEO Elon Musk announced the site was reversing its previous election policy banning political advertising from campaigns and political parties. Disinformation watch dogs went on alert immediately. Other platforms, like Meta and Google, have added new advertising policies ahead of the election to assuage generative AI threats. 

Advertising across Big Tech platforms has become a hot-button topic in a sporadically regulated industry. On sites like TikTok and X, ads are crowding out user-generated content

In June 2023, Google’s advertising business came under fire from both the U.S. government and the European Union, accused of violating both unions’ antitrust laws. In recent months, Google has amped up its advertising scrutiny, most recently announcing a ban on ads that feature fake endorsements, an apparent response to a Mashable investigation

But there’s been a positive shift along this bumpy road: In the five years since Mozilla and a panel of independent researchers released its advertising API guidelines in 2019, 11 of the world’s largest tech companies have introduced ad repositories. According to the report, both Google and Facebook have since updated their services with ad targeting criteria, engagement and historical data, and better filtering. 

“Who pays for ads and how they’re targeted is crucial in helping watchdogs look out for the public interest — whether that’s fair elections, public health, or social justice,” said co-founder and chief technology officer for CheckFirst Amaury Lesplingart. “In short, if you see an ad telling you that climate change is a hoax, you might be interested to know if that ad’s paid for by the fossil fuel industry.” 



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