NEW YORK CITY (InvestigateTV) - Political campaigns collect massive amounts of data on voters. Now, voters have a chance to get data on campaigns. Ahead of the November election, InvestigateTV is partnering with ProPublica to pull back the veil on political ads on social media. This area of campaigning has been largely secretive, but a new online tool exposes Facebook political ads – and why certain people are seeing them.
There are plenty of ads floating around on Facebook that many individual users will never see because they aren't who a particular campaign wants to reach. Campaigns can target people – based on gender, geography, political leanings ("guessed" by Facebook for those who don’t publicly declare) and other interests.
"I think what we've just seen so far is the extent to which this microtargeting is taking over the world of advertising," said ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg. "And that ads are very cleverly and carefully tailored to the audiences of people who are watching them. And, you know, depending on your political preferences, you get very different ads."
ProPublica's tool, the Facebook Political Ad Collector, allows everyone to learn more about the targeting happening right now. By downloading a Google Chrome or Firefox plug-in, users can help categorize ads to figure out why they might be targeting specific people. Additionally, anyone can see who is targeting different groups around the country. For example, there is a filtering function to see ads targeting different political leanings and a search function to research any term – including candidate names.
To download the plug-in, click here. ProPublica assures the tool is safe and does not collect or store any personal information about users.
We wrote this very carefully to reveal no personal data to us. It is all anonymized. You download it and all we get back is the ad. And we are not intending to do anything that would reveal personal data," Engelberg said.
Campaigns are increasingly using online platforms - especially social media - to reach very specific groups of people. In 2014, candidates and committees spent $71 million on political ads online, according to one advertising research group, Borrell Associates. For the 2018 mid-term elections, it estimates the spending to grow to $1.9 billion.
In the online world, social media is most popular – with Facebook at the top, Borrell Associates Executive Vice President Kip Cassino said.
"The major tool local campaigns have had in the past is the voter registration list from the county," Cassino said. "And those lists are not useful online. On the other hand, if you go to Facebook, Facebook is very intuitive for advertisers. You can say, ‘Well gee, I want to see all the people who have these attributes.’ You don’t need addresses anymore."
He said those targeted ads are proving to be effective – as do other political experts, who say the proof is in the past.
“We just had a presidential candidate in 2016 that was able to win a presidential election primarily on social media advertising, in-person appearances,” said Dr. Steve Garrison, chair of the Midwestern State University political science department. “So, it’s created a new model for how to win.”
Plus, he adds, it’s a cheaper option.
Couple that with another hurdle being taken down - regulation - and it's an enticing tactic for campaigns. While federal laws have many requirements for traditional radio, television and newspaper ads, Facebook ads don't have the same bars to clear.
"At the moment in America there’s absolutely no way for anybody to know or understand what kind of ads are running, who they are being paid for by, what the purpose is, very different from other kinds of advertising," Engelberg said.
So far, around 13,000 users have helped collect more than 60,000 political ads in ProPublica’s tool. Through the database, people have been able to see why they are being targeted, and journalists have been able to identify failings with new policies meant to crack down on political ads on the platform.
In September 2017, Facebook found about $100,000 in ad spending from June 2015 to May 2017 came from nearly 500 "inauthentic accounts… likely operated out of Russia." In December 2017, the Federal Election Commission declared Facebook ads must also follow rules that require disclosure of who paid for it.
Facebook has changed policies - now requiring authentication with personal information from a page administrator to run political ads. Those ads are now also supposed to have the name of who paid for the content and each ad is supposed to be published in a searchable database.
Despite the government decision and the policy changes, ProPublica found those requirements are largely not followed. In February, journalists analyzed 300 ads and found fewer than 40 ads had the correct language to satisfy the FEC ruling.
Ads failing to meet that language came from various entities, including the Democratic National Committee and the Donald Trump 2020 campaign. ProPublica also found political ads missing from the new database.
"The FEC still hasn’t come up with a good way of monitoring what the amount of usage is of the mobile devices, and in fact online in general yet, as they have with radio and TV and the newspapers. So they’re still working on it, and in the meantime it’s still wide open," Cassino said.
With the Facebook Political Ad Collector, InvestigateTV will join the call for more transparency in this new age of digital campaign advertising.
"I think this is a way to understand what’s happening in our country," Engelberg said. "We had the whole Russian thing, and nobody knew it. And now we have another election. And I think it’s part of every citizens’ potential contribution to our democracy to be able to say who are sending ads out and what are they saying."
InvestigateTV will publish findings ahead of the mid-term election.