Meta’s lack of ad transparency contributes to political polarization
October 27, 2022
Meta was hit with a $24.7 million fine after a Washington judge found the tech giant had intentionally violated the state's campaign finance disclosure laws.
Ken Birman, professor of computer science at Cornell University, is an expert on big “cloud computing” companies such as Facebook and Google. He says claims that Meta cannot track advertisement data is peculiar and that its ad practices contribute to an “echo chamber effect” and political polarization.
“For tasks like tracking customers who paid for advertising or identifying instances in which that advertising was displayed to users, clouds routinely maintain records as part of companies’ billing systems. For this reason, Meta’s claimed inability to track this data is peculiar. The company’s infrastructure includes tamperproof blockchains into which data related to political advertising could be securely stored for later review by auditors.
“The more significant issue centers on incentives. Meta earns much of its revenue by placing advertising, hence the company is strongly motivated to build profiles of its users and is exceptionally well-positioned for political advertising. However, the public dislikes being spied upon, and Meta has a long history of minimizing disclosures about its policies for gathering and using personal information.
“When cloud computing systems place advertising or select specific content to show a user, they use AI algorithms that group each user with other individuals with similar views. This can create insular communities in which individuals only hear views aligned with their own, and only see news reporting that supports their beliefs. Yet these communities may not be representative of society. When the election later is tabulated, if the outcome departs from what a person’s social network had anticipated, such a person can feel betrayed and be prone to suspect that the election results are incorrect.
“While it would be fairly easy for Meta to answer questions about who its advertisers are, and who saw specific advertising content, it is much harder to regulate the echo-chamber effect. Yet, the phenomenon illustrates how companies like Meta contribute to today’s extreme political polarization.”