9. Analyzing ads on social networks

Written by: Johanna Wild

Johanna Wild is an open-source investigator at Bellingcat, where she also focuses on tech and tool development for digital investigations. She has an online journalism background and previously worked with journalists in (post-) conflict regions. One of her roles was to support journalists in Eastern Africa to produce broadcasts for the Voice of America.

The ads you see on your social media timeline are not the same that the people sitting next to you on public transportation see on theirs. Based on factors like your location, gender, age and the things you liked or shared on the network, you might be shown ads for luxurious holiday suites in Málaga while your neighbor sees ads for Japanese mobile games.

Microtargeting, categorizing users into target groups to show them ads that fit their life circumstances and interests, has become a major concern during elections. The worry is that campaigns could target very small slices of the population with ads that stoke fear or hatred, or that spread false information. In general, ads from politicians placed on social networks are not subject to fact-checking. Facebook, for instance, reaffirmed in January 2020 that it will continue to allow any political ad as long as it abides by Facebook’s community standards. This means specific user groups could be targeted with ads that contain disinformation on crucial political or social topics.

Until recently, it was nearly impossible for journalists and researchers to gain insights into the ads targeted to different users. In response to public criticism about the lack of transparency, several social networks created ad libraries that allow anyone to review information about ads published on their platforms.

In particular, Facebook’s library has been accused of not reliably showing all available ads. So whenever you use these libraries, take some time to check whether all the ads that you see on your timeline can also be found there.

Ad libraries are nevertheless an important step toward more transparency and provide journalists and others with exciting new ways of investigating digital advertisements. The following techniques will help you get started on investigating ads placed on major platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Google

Google’s ads center is well hidden within its Transparency Report. Use this link to access the political advertising section, which provides information on Google and YouTube ads from the European Union, India and the United States.

The page for each region shows a list of countries and the total ad spend since the launch of the report.

Click on a country and you will be led to a page containing its ads database:

You can filter the results by date, the amount of money spent and the number of times an ad is shown to users (impressions). You can filter by the format of the ad if you want to view results for video, image or text-based ads.

It’s also easy to find the biggest spenders. For example, if you want to view the biggest political ad campaigns placed in the U.K. since the launch of the report until January 2020, simply change the “sort” category to “spend – high to low,” as shown below.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest ad buys came just before and on the day of the General Election, Dec. 12, 2019. You can also see that the Conservative & Unionist Party invested more than £50,000 each on two YouTube ads that ran for just one day.

The Labour Party, in contrast, spent more than £50,000 for an ad on Google’s search results pages for a tool it said could help voters find their polling station.

You can also search by keyword. Type in NHS (for National Health Service) and you will see that in November and December 2019 the Labour Party and the Conservatives purchased Google search ads to criticize each other’s plans for the NHS.

By clicking on the name of the advertiser, you can also check the total amount of money they’ve spent on Google ads since the launch of the Transparency Report. Here’s what that looked like for the two leading U.K. political parties as of January 2020:

You can also view a timeline of their spend. The reports on the left shows the spending pattern for the Conservative & Unionist Party, and the one on the right is for the Labour Party:

If you want to further analyze the ads database, scroll down until you see a green section called “download data,” which allows you to download the data in CSV format.

This enables you to import the data into a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel so you can perform additional filtering and analysis.

Facebook

The Facebook ad library is divided into two parts: “All Ads” and “Issue, Electoral or Political.” If you click on “All Ads,” you can search for specific advertisers by name only, instead of also using keywords.

For example, if I want to see ads from Deutschland Kurier, a publication that often publishes content in support of German far-right party AfD, I can type its name and Facebook will recommend pages with that text:

The results page shows that Deutschland Kurier placed ads worth 3,654 euros in Germany between March 2019 and January 2020.

Once on the results page, make sure to select the correct country for your search (or “all”), and to choose whether you want to see ads from Facebook, Instagram, Messenger or Facebook Audience Network. Audience Network is an ad network operated by Facebook that places ads on mobile apps and websites other than Facebook’s own properties. In most cases, the best choice will be to search across all platforms to get a full picture of an organization’s ads.

On an individual ad you can click the “See ad details” button to view additional information.

In this case, Deutschland Kurier spent less than €100 for this ad that calls climate change protesters “child soldiers of Soros & Co.,” and it had between 5,000 and 10,000 impressions, mostly displayed to men aged 45 and older.

The second option for searching the ads library is to choose “Issue, Electoral or Political” database, which is an archive of ads about “social issues, elections or politics.” The big advantage of this option is that you can search for any keyword you like, and these kinds of ads are archived by Facebook.

Let’s look at an example.

Sadhguru is the name of a well-known Indian spiritual figure who says he’s not associated with any political party. He has said he sees it as his duty to support any current government “to do their best.” If you type in his name in the “All Ads” section, Facebook suggests Sadhguru’s personal Facebook page.

This shows us a selection of apolitical ads published by Sadhguru in which he promotes his yoga and meditation courses.

Now let’s type in his name into the “Issue, Electoral or Political” search bar without accepting the Facebook page suggestions that come up:

The results change drastically. You can now see a collection of ads mentioning Sadhguru’s name published by other accounts.

One ad from the ruling Indian nationalist party BJP shows a video in which Sadhguru pronounces his support for the party’s controversial Citizenship Amendment bill. The bill allows unregistered immigrants from some of India’s neighboring countries to attain Indian citizenship more easily but does not grant the same opportunity to Muslims. The ad provides one hint to the possible relationship between Sadhguru and BJP, a topic that is widely discussed in India.

This example shows how to use Facebook’s ad library to add key information to your investigations. You may also want to have a look at the Facebook Ad library report, which extracts key insights from political ads in different countries.

Twitter

In late 2019, Twitter decided to ban political advertising from its platform. However, it’s still possible to use the social network’s ads transparency center to gain information about nonpolitical ads from the past seven days.

Finding ads is cumbersome because there’s no keyword search functionality. To start a search, go to the box in the upper right corner and type in a specific username or handle.

If there were ads in the last seven days, you will now see them listed.

Searching for The Financial Times, we can see it paid to try to generate more interest in its story “How native speakers can stop confusing everyone else.” The tweet was sent on Dec. 3, 2019, but the ad information from Twitter doesn’t detail when this paid promotion exactly ran.

To speed up your searches, you can use a small trick. Once you have conducted a search, take a look at the URL in your browser:

The URL always uses the same structure, with a Twitter handle at the end. Simply delete the last part and replace it with another handle:

Refresh the page and you will now see the ads information for Bellingcat. If that account hasn’t run any ads in the past seven days, you’ll see the message “This account hasn’t promoted any ads in the last seven days.” Since you can only see ads from the previous seven days, the best thing you can do is to check back frequently to see if an account of note has run ads, and to take screenshots each time you see new ads.

Snapchat

The “Snap political ads library” offers insights into political, “issue related” or advocacy ads. The latter are defined as “ads concerning issues or organisations that are the subject of debate on a local, national or global level, or are of public importance.” For instance, topics such as immigration, education or guns.

If you go to the library, you will see a list of years.

Click on one of the years and you can download a spreadsheet with all available information about ads from that year. The content of the spreadsheet doesn’t look very exciting at first sight but it actually is! Each line represents an ad and it shows you who placed the ad, the amount of money spent on it, and even which characteristics were chosen to micro target users.

In the example above, the advertiser wanted to target “Adventure Seekers,Arts & Culture Mavens,Beachgoers & Surfers,Beauty Mavens,Bookworms & Avid Readers,Collegiates,Foodies,Hipsters & Trendsetters,Political News Watchers,Outdoor & Nature Enthusiasts,Pet & Animal Lovers,Philanthropists,Worldly Travelers,Women's Lifestyle.”

Other platforms do not offer this kind of targeting information in their ad libraries.

You also find a URL in the spreadsheet that allows you to see the actual ad. In this example, I found a message that encouraged people to order free rainbow flags in support of an upcoming vote in Switzerland related to the protection against discrimination of LGBT people.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn does not allow political ads on its platform and it does not have an ads library. Luckily, there’s another way to get insights into a specific company’s advertising on the platform.

If you go to the company’s LinkedIn page, you will see a tab called “Ads” at the bottom of the left column.

Click on that tab and LinkedIn will show you a list of all ads published by that company in the previous six months. Using this feature, it was possible to see that the Epoch Times was still publishing ads on LinkedIn after it had been banned from doing the same on Facebook. The company’s two ads claimed that “America’s news outlets no longer provide the truth” and contrasted that claim by presenting The Epoch Times as “independent” and “non-partisan media.”

The exact publishing dates are not visible, but you can click on the ad (this will work even if it is not active on LinkedIn) and sometimes the destination site provides a more concrete date. The first Epoch Times ad led to a text dated as “September 23, 2019” and “Updated: December 18, 2019,” which helped estimate when it might have been online.

Once you get to know their hidden features, ad libraries are an easy and powerful addition to your digital investigation arsenal, and an important element to check when investigating a person or entity with a social media presence.

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