Amid a major release of internal Facebook information around its operations, and calls by Australia’s consumer regulator for more power to regulate how digital platforms control advertising, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has launched a research project to expose ‘dark ads’ on the platform.
Professor Mark Andrejevic of Monash University, who is leading the research, told Business Insider Australia the goal of the project was to examine in an Australian context how personalised advertising was being targeted.
“We have huge numbers of ads that are highly customised and targeted. And we have no visibility really into who’s receiving them, and what those messages are,” Andrejevic said.
The project, which Andrejevic is undertaking with Professor Daniel Angus from QUT, aims to aggregate user-generated data to create more transparency around Facebook’s use of personalised display advertising, specifically ‘dark ads’.
Dark ads are ads displayed and targeted to specific users based on detailed information collected about them online which are viewable by them but untraceable by outside observers.
Display advertising, which spans both open and closed channels, represents 39% of Australian digital advertising spend.
The ACCC’s recent report into online advertising focused on Google’s dominance of the open display ad market, focusing on how it owns the ad tech and has the power to control multiple parts of the supply chain at once during the ad buying process.
But it also signalled it was concerned about transparency in ad processes across the board, for social and digital platforms and apps.
‘Few ways of knowing if there are breaches of advertising codes of practice’
Andrejevic said Facebook’s business model, underwritten by advertising spending, demanded further scrutiny in an Australian context amid broader investigations around how advertising was being managed online.
Facebook’s personalised advertising model is even more opaque than Google’s, he argued.
Since 2007 with the launch of its ‘Social Ads’ functionality, Facebook has relied on closed — or personalised — forms of customised advertising.
And while the company provides some transparency on its advertising processes through the Facebook Ad Library, the researchers say the information is not independently verified and removes inactive ads from its public database.
Furthermore, Facebook doesn’t offer researchers detailed information about the specifics of targeting offered to advertisers.
“The lack of information on algorithmically targeted advertising practices means we have few ways of knowing if there are breaches of advertising codes of practice, or other potentially problematic activities occurring,” Angus said.
This use of ‘dark ads’ has made it possible to discriminate in online advertising and to engage in forms of stereotyping and manipulation that are invisible to consumers, the research team said, citing examples in the US where ads around housing and credit services targeted users by race.
Andrejevic said the project’s goal was to gain more transparency over this specific advertising practice, amid growing recognition around how the ways in which the advertising system is “changing fundamentally.”
The potential to ‘hold online advertising accountable’
The discovery that Facebook made it possible to target ads for employment by race and gender was uncovered by US investigative news outlet ProPublica in 2016.
The tool the Australian research team is using actually builds on the open source version of the tool it created, Andrejevic said.
These discoveries “just opened the door to thinking about all of the ways in which the new advertising environment can be abused in ways that we are unaware of unless we have some ability to see how ads are being delivered,” he said, adding the project follows other work conducted internationally that has asked similar questions.
Particularly with the upcoming federal election, Andrejevic said the project had the potential to “hold online advertising accountable to make sure that the rules are being followed.”
“The concern with online is that those types of practices would fly under the radar unless you have some form of accountability to see whether they’re taking place,” he said.
Andrejevic said the project was being undertaken without preconceived expectations around how this form of advertising operates, including whether it was being abused by advertisers.
“You know, maybe everything is fine, and there’s no issues to worry about,” Andrejevic said.
“But we know from other realms, in which disinformation and false information have been spreading online, there are reasons to be concerned.
“And so until we have some mechanism for holding these forms of advertising accountable, we can’t really know.”