Lawrence Dodd lives in one of Britain’s most fiercely fought voting districts, and he has been peppered almost daily with ads from the country’s major political parties on Facebook. About a month ago, he tried to find out why. Mr. Dodd, a maker of musical instruments in northern England, joined an experiment. He and around 10,000 others volunteered their data, allowing researchers to monitor in real time which political ads were showing up in their Facebook news feeds as Britain’s election approached. Their goal: to shed more light on how political campaigns are using Facebook and other digital services — technologies that are quickly reshaping the democratic process, but which often offer few details about their outsize roles in elections worldwide.
“These political ads aren’t regulated; nobody knows what is being said on Facebook,” said Mr. Dodd, 26, who planned to vote for the Labour Party on Thursday elections, but who continued to be bombarded with online messages from the Conservatives. “Wherever politics is concerned, there needs to more transparency.”
Facebook provides little information on how political parties use ads to reach undecided voters on the site. And concern has been growing since the American presidential election about the company’s role in campaigns, including about how politically charged fake news is spread online.
Now, as voters head to the polls across Europe, groups in Britain, Germany and elsewhere are fighting back, creating new ways to track and monitor digital political ads and misinformation on the social network and on other digital services like Twitter and Google.