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Australian Ad Observatory Project aims to make Facebook’s ‘dark ads’ publicly accessible

Source Monash University Media
Date 3 October 2021

The ADM+S Centre launched its latest data donation project on October 1. This project is asking members of the public to install a browser extension that aims to provide accountability and transparency around the social media giant’s use of targeted advertising.

The Australian Ad Observatory will collect Facebook users’ personalised or ‘dark’ ads and develop strategies for addressing the potential harms associated with them.

The project is led by Monash University’s Professor Mark Andrejevic as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society (ADM+S).

Researchers from ADM+S developed the tool to attempt to make public the ads that are being served to people online and how advertising is distributed across demographic groups.

Once Facebook users install the browser plugin it will identify sponsored advertising content, take a snapshot of the content and send it back to a central server, allowing researchers to build an independent archive of advertising materials that are shown to Facebook users.

“Dark ads pose a host of potential social harms, from discrimination, the propagation of racist or gender stereotyping, and the spread of false and harmful information,” Professor Andrejevic said.

“It is important to hold advertising systems accountable for the forms of messaging they promulgate.

“Online advertising and digital marketing takes place on a mass scale and a large majority of its distribution is automated – therefore the systems don’t know when they’re engaging in regressive, racist or sexual activity as they are driven by the goal of maximising clicks and responses.”

A recent survey of 1,094 people conducted by Essential Research on behalf of the ADM+S Centre revealed less than half (41 per cent) of participants felt Facebook advertising was relevant to them.

Just 30 per cent of respondents said they were comfortable with their personal data being used for advertising purposes, and more than three-quarters said Facebook should be transparent about how it distributes advertising on its newsfeed.

The ADM+S tool builds on a study conducted by ProPublica which was designed to track political advertising on Facebook, as well as a 2020 pilot study by Monash researchers of 136 Australian Facebook users who donated ads to researchers for analysis.

The Monash study was funded by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network.

“Our goal is to foster a conversation about the need for public transparency in online advertising, which is transforming our media environment,” Professor Andrejevic said.

“With targeted advertising, there is a risk that society could 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 and now, more than ever, we are seeing the damage of people using social media to promulgate dangerous messages, particularly around COVID-19 and vaccines misinformation.”

The tool is available as a plugin for anyone to install on their web browser and does not collect any personally identifying information or anything that is not an ad.

It can be removed or disabled at any time, and has received ethics clearance.

For more information about the Australian Ad Observatory and how you can participate, visit here.