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Ad transparency tools ‘major disappointment’ ahead of election: study

As the 2024 US elections and major political contests around the world approach, internet companies are unprepared for the coming onslaught of misinformation.

This is according to a study carried out Tuesday by Mozilla and CheckFirst, which concludes that the main technology platforms are lagging behind in their advertising transparency tools. The study, carried out between December and January, tested The alphabet Google and YouTube search, Apples App Store and from Microsoft Bing and LinkedIn, as well as the services of Meta, Pinterest, InstantTikTok, X and others.

None of the results were great, and some were “a major disappointment,” according to the researchers.

Advertising transparency tools were made mandatory by the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which requires large tech platforms to maintain ad libraries and other tools, such as application programming interfaces (API), intended for use by researchers and the public. The DSA deadline was January 1.

Users should be able to use these tools to find information about the ads they see or specific companies’ ad campaigns, including ad copy, target audience, ad reach, and call to action. .

“It’s no longer a voluntary thing,” Claire Pershan, head of European advocacy at Mozilla, told CNBC. “It’s something these companies need to do.”

No platform has passed the test with the “ready for action” designation. Instead, the results ranged from lack of vital data and functionality to “there are still large gaps” in data and functionality. Some had the “bare minimum,” according to the study.

This is worrying news as major platforms prepare for a huge year of elections that will affect more than 4 billion people in more than 40 countries.

“It’s important right now that the platforms really collaborate, and it’s important for us to push now, because of the election year,” said Amaury Lesplingart, co-founder and chief technology officer of CheckFirst, to CNBC in an interview.

The rise of artificial intelligence and AI-generated content has led to serious election-related misinformation issues, with the number of generated deepfakes increasing by 900% year over year, according to data from the machine learning company Clarity. Election-related disinformation has been a major problem since the 2016 presidential campaign, when Russian actors sought to deploy simple, inexpensive ways to spread inaccurate content on social platforms.

Lawmakers are currently even more concerned about the rapid rise of AI.

“There are serious reasons to be concerned about how AI could be used to mislead voters in campaigns,” Josh Becker, a Democratic state senator from California, told CNBC in an interview in FEBRUARY.

The new research determined that the tools offered by X were a “major disappointment” because the company only offered a CSV file instead of a web interface, making it difficult to find ads. Lesplingart told CNBC that users need to know the name of the advertiser, the targeted country and the date of the ad in order to export to an ad file.

“We are perhaps very disappointed to see X (formerly Twitter) making such a minimal effort, given that it remains a central space for civic discourse,” the researchers wrote. “This may be why the European Commission included X’s advertising benchmark in its formal proceedings against the platform under the DSA.”

Bing, Snapchat, Alibaba’s AliExpress and Zalando also received the lowest ratings. Alphabet, Pinterest and Reservation.com received the penultimate designation. Apple’s App Store, LinkedIn, Meta and TikTok received higher ratings, although they were classified as still having “large gaps” in terms of data and functionality.

“Our main takeaway is that even the best approaches do not meet our benchmarks,” the researchers wrote.

Regarding Alphabet’s transparency tools for Google Search and YouTube, researchers said that “it’s been six years and we still can’t do keyword research.” They reported accuracy issues and missing data on Pinterest and TikTok. On Bing’s tools, users can’t search for words containing special characters, they found.

For Apple’s App Store tools, users and researchers cannot see ad campaigns broken down by targeted country, which is an important feature for tracking election-related misinformation, the study found.

“The effectiveness of these tools depends on their practical usefulness for researchers,” the researchers write. They added: “But we would also like to consider the glass half full and look forward to further improvements.”


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