As multiple congressional committees investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, much attention has been paid to campaign ads that ran on Facebook and other social media platforms.
Facebook admitted last month that “it had identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin,” according to The New York Times.
Meanwhile, CNBC reported that “Twitter sold more than $270,000 of ads to Russia-linked accounts during the 2016 election.”
What’s the Big Deal?
There are some key differences between online political ads, and traditional campaign ads running on TV and radio.
“When it comes to television commercials, you can track who’s behind the advertisements in two ways,” described the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that advocates for open government.
“First, committees present them on their campaign finance reports and super PAC filings. In addition, television and radio stations are required to file information about political advertisements with the Federal Communications Commission, including who placed the ad and the amount of money. They also are required to have a disclaimer that discloses who paid for it.”
Online campaign ads, in contrast, “can only be tracked on those campaign finance reports,” according to the Sunlight Foundation. “And because the rules on online ads are so lax, a disclaimer on who’s behind the ads wouldn’t be necessary for viral videos placed on YouTube or other content distributed on services like social media.”
In addition, the level of scrutiny from the press and watchdog groups differs for traditional campaign ads versus their newer online siblings.
“If similar ads had appeared on TV, radio or in newspapers, journalists and advocacy groups would have fact-checked them,” explained ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom that specializes in investigative journalism.
Perhaps the most important distinction is that the very structure of online ads makes it next to impossible for an outsider to determine their content, timing, or audience.
“For example, if an advertiser micro-targets a group such as 40-year-old female motorcyclists in Nashville, Tennessee, (Facebook audience estimate: 1,300 people) with a misleading ad, it’s unlikely anyone other than the bikers will ever see those ads,” ProPublica added.
“Even though it’s the world’s largest social network, what happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.”
Short of a policy change from social media companies or stricter campaign advertising regulations, what can be done to help bring online campaign ads into the light?
ProPublica has answered that question by launching a “crowdsourcing tool that will gather political ads from Facebook, the biggest online platform for political discourse.”
Showing its sense of humor, the organization named the tool the Political Ad Collector (a.k.a. PAC) “in a nod to the Political Action Committees that fund many of today’s political ads.”
How Does the ‘PAC’ Work?
The tool is an online plugin that users can install inside their Internet browser (e.g. Google Chrome).
“When users log into Facebook, the tool will collect the ads displayed on the user’s news feed and guess which ones are political based on an algorithm built by ProPublica,” the organization explained in PAC’s launch announcement.
“The tool does not collect any personally identifiable information, and we will not know which ads are shown to which user,” ProPublica added.
The end result will be a “public database that will allow the public to see them all.”
Want to try out PAC for yourself? You can install the ProPublica plugin here – and let us know if you like it!