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Political advertising on Facebook and Google is a “black box”, warns UK data watchdog

Targeted political advertising on platforms such as Facebook and Google is a “black box”, the UK’s information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has warned.

Speaking to the House of Lords select committee on AI earlier this week, Denham decried the absence of transparency in online political ad campaigns.

“It’s a black box for the public to understand how data analytics actually works in using platforms like Facebook or Google to deliver political messages or ads,” she said.

Denham’s office is currently investigating the use of data analytics in political campaigns, and is shining a light on data analytics companies and social media firms.

“[We’re looking at] how was political data used by the platforms to target message or microtarget voters or individuals to persuade them to vote a certain way or to send a certain message,” she said.

“What we can do is pull back the curtain on how the data is used and how data analysis is happening with these big players in the marketplace.”

The rise of social media in political campaigning came under scrutiny last year when it emerged that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was using detailed psychographic profiling to try to win over voters.

It was thrust back into the spotlight only last month when Facebook, Google and Twitter were grilled over their role in promoting Russian disinformation during the same election.

Senator Al Franken asked Facebook’s legal chief: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia?”

The firm revealed the next day that nearly 150 million people were exposed to inflammatory political posts linked to Russian agents before and after the election.