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Unregulated and segmented: how Facebook targets users through dark advertising

Facebook’s data-driven micro-targeting “dark ads” lack accountability and could enable the spread of disinformation, discrimination and harmful stereotyping, Monash University researchers have found.


Researchers from Monash’s Automated Society Working Group in the School of Media, Film and Journalism in the Faculty of Arts have developed a tool to attempt to make public what ads are being served to people online and how advertising is distributed across demographic groups. 


Dark ads are visible only to those to whom they are delivered, meaning the content is not available for public inspection, the pattern of distribution is unclear and they tend to be short-lived and undergo constant transformation - making them difficult to track.


Monash’s tool builds on a study conducted by US news outlet ProPublica which was designed to track political advertising on Facebook. 


Monash researchers believe their tool to be the first to study all ads appearing in people’s Facebook newsfeeds. 


The tool developed by Monash researchers allowed users to automatically donate their adverts into a  database, which could then be collated and filtered by demographic categories. 


Interviews were also conducted to gauge users’ feelings and memories of the ads they saw.


A sample of advertisements were donated to researchers by 136 Australian Facebook users of varying ages, backgrounds and income levels via a browser extension.


Researchers compiled their findings in a report for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) entitled Unregulated and segmented: Dark ads on social media.


Through the analysis of the donated ads, they observed:

  • Women saw more health, wellness and clothing ads

  • Men were three times more likely to see a finance or technology ad, and were more likely to see a business ad

  • There was a skew of alcohol ads served to male users

  • Gambling ads were overwhelmingly received by men

  • Loan savings services were seen by those with lower levels of education attainment


Researcher Dr Robbie Fordyce said it was important to hold advertising systems and advertisers accountable for the forms of messaging they promulgate.


“The lack of regulatory frameworks and direct insight into the content of dark ads and their pattern of distribution made it difficult to get a sense of the extent to which harmful practices are widespread,” he said. 


“For all practical purposes, online advertising exists in an unregulated Wild West, enabling advertisers and platforms to see what they can get away with. Whilst laws against discrimination and false advertising exist, they are difficult to enforce when the ads are fleeting and not publicly available.”


Researchers acknowledged digital marketing takes place on a mass scale, that much of the tailoring is automated and providing accountability for dark ads was challenging.


Ad campaigns are able to run hundreds or even thousands of variations of ads in response to ongoing forms of A/B testing and systematically vary elements including text, image, and design.


“Advertisers might not specifically request that an ad only be delivered to a certain demographic, however, automated systems might optimise potential clicks by allocating the ad to particular groups or individuals based on gender, ethnicity or other variables,” co-researcher Dr Verity Trott said.


“The system doesn’t know when it is engaging in regressive, racist or sexist activity, it is driven blindly by the goal of maximising clicks and responses. 


“There’s a fear we will lose the ability to form a shared understanding of current events, of political figures, of collective experiences if we are all receiving different messages. It’s a customised digital virtual reality where we get our own ‘secret’ messages invisible to others.”

Researchers recommended social media platforms should be required to provide publicly accessible and searchable ad libraries that can be sorted by demographic characteristics, they develop socially responsible algorithms and are more specific about the sources of data used for targeted advertising purposes.

They also suggested increased public awareness and discussion of dark ads was urgently needed.

“Some of our participants felt anxious about ads, others powerless. We can see that the Australian public lacks a suitable awareness of how online ads work, and lack a lot of nuance in terms of its effects,” Dr Fordyce said.

“Regulatory interventions in other jurisdictions have been successful in mobilising changes within Facebook and other online companies. The Australian Federal Government’s News Media Bargaining Code has demonstrated that the government is not afraid of regulating social media giants, and we see an opportunity to take this further in making productive developments in a way that enhances democratic processes in Australia.”

Researchers used the digital ad collection process, a series of interviews with research participants who had provided them with ads, and a set of focus groups in the form of workshops as part of this project. It was conducted in two phases across April - May 2019. The tool built on the ProPublica Political Ad Collector which first emerged in 2017.

Media enquiries:
Professor Mark Andrejevic
T: +61 479 051 142 E: mark.andrejevic@monash.edu

For any other topics on which you may be seeking expert comment, contact the Monash University Media Unit on +61 3 9903 4840 or media@monash.edu

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