Online advertising has often been described as the “Wild West” of the marketing world. It’s called the “Wild West” because there is little regulation on where companies, interest groups and politicians can advertise, how they advertise and who they target.
This rough and tumble attitude is especially prevalent in political ads on Facebook, and obviously, no matter your political leanings, fake information on Facebook has had an adverse effect on our democracy. Russians bought $100,000 worth of political ads on Facebook during the 2016 presidential election, and everyone and their grandma fought about politics on the social media site.
It’s been a constant, nagging question over the last few months: how do we sort out the nonsense on social media? Stronger regulations might solve our problems, but there will be no more government oversight in our near future with the Republicans running the show. Also, asking people to stop posting and reading about politics on Facebook won’t help either. I’ve tried.
The best we can do for now is collect information and try to understand how and why groups are advertising and who they’re targeting. That’s what one media organization is doing with a cool new app for your computer.
In the fall of last year, ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization based in New York City, created a crowdsourcing application that gathers political ads from Facebook. It’s called the Political Ad Collector or PAC (a jab at the Political Action Committees who are the sources of many of the ads that are collected), and it can be downloaded for Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox from their respective app stores.
The PAC is basically a browser plugin, and it sits next to the address bar on your web browser. When you’re on Facebook and you summon it, it shows you a collection of advertisements that it found on your Facebook news feed (it also shows you ads that other people are shown if you want to look at those). Above each ad is a question, “What type of ad is this?” with two possible responses: “Political ad” or “Normal ad.” You decide what kind of ad it is, and ProPublica collects them.
I first heard about this new application on “Note To Self,” an NPR technology podcast from WNYC Studios. Julia Angwin, a senior reporter at ProPublica, talked to Manoush Zomorodi, the show’s host, about the PAC.
ProPublica sees this application as a watchdog for social media advertising. The PAC isn’t going to stop misleading ads from showing up on your news feed, but when the system has collected enough information it should be able to provide some insight on what types of strategies are being employed by political advertisers. The PAC is also an excellent tool for tracking advertisements that might only last for a few minutes. These ads play by different rules than the billboards you drive past and the attack ads you see on cable television (if you’re old enough to still have cable).
“I’m aiming to build a public repository of the most possible ads I can collect from Facebook. It’s never going to be all of them but if more people use our tool, we’ll get more ads, and at least we’ll have some sense of what’s going on on that platform,” Angwin said on the podcast.
Until December of 2017, Facebook advertisers didn’t have to disclose who paid for the ad. On TV when a commercial says something like “Dean Heller votes for gun rights time and time again, and guns can be used to kill innocent babies. Do you want to vote for a baby-killer?” and the end of the commercial would say something like “Paid for by the Nancy Pelosi campaign,” and you would know exactly where it came from. This is a ridiculous example, but maybe not as ridiculous as some the ads on Facebook every day.
“Political ads are something that should be fact-checked,” Angwin said on “Note To Self.” “But really, because of the nature of Facebook, the only people who see them are the people to whom they are targeted.”
Angwin said they chose Facebook to collect these ads because it’s such a popular place to do political advertising, and it is so popular because advertisers can target specific groups of users. They can target users by very specific characteristics, like zip code or by what school someone says they attend on their profile. Basically, you see different ads on your feed than someone in rural Nebraska sees because Facebook knows you care about different things.
Facebook collects data on their users based on what they like, what they share and where they go. You can see your own advertising categories on your profile under “Ad Preferences.”
I Don’t use Facebook often, yet Facebook knows I don’t live at home, it knows I’ve lived with a roommate who is not a family member, it knows I travel often, it knows how long I’ve been using a mobile phone and it even correctly guessed my political views (even though I never post anything about politics).
And it offers advertisers the option to target users based on this information.
It’s a system that figures out what users want to hear and then shows them advertisements that the system knows will be particularly persuasive to that individual. It’s a very powerful tool for groups with an agenda, whether they are spitting out truth or lies.
ProPublica’s Political Ad Collector is a device that will help us sift through the nonsense, and aims to make the internet a little less wild. I hope to see more like it in the future.
Opinions expressed in The Nevada Sagebrush are solely those of the author and do not necessarily express the views of The Sagebrush or of its staff. Ryan Suppe studies journalism and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @salsuppe