5 min read

ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom known for its investigative journalism, published an article yesterday, written by Jeremy B Merrill, their news app developer, on their investigative project around Facebook. They collected over 100,000 targeted Facebook Ads to understand and report how political messaging works on Facebook. It was also meant to analyze how the system manipulates the public discourse.

Merrill states that they launched their Facebook Political Ad Collector project in fall 2017 which was joined by over 16,000 people. As a part of the project, all the participants were required to install a browser plug-in that would anonymously send the ads they see on browsing Facebook. As the data was getting collected, it was observed that the number of ads collected from Democrats and progressive groups was larger than from Republicans or conservative groups.

“We tried a number of things to make our ad collection more diverse: to start, we bought our own Facebook ads asking people across a range of states to install the ad collector. We also teamed up with Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, for a special election-oriented project, in an attempt to reach a broader swath of users”, writes Merrill.

However, since the political ad collector was entirely anonymous, not much information could be gathered about the audience. Another issue was that the left-leaning groups made use of Facebook advertising more than the conservative groups.

To solve this issue, ProPublica partnered up with a research firm called YouGov. This was to create a panel of users ranging from a wide spectrum of demographic groups and political ideologies who would be okay with a new less-anonymous ad collector plug-in. A unique ID was assigned to these users that were tied back to the data about them such as demographics, political preference, race, and residence state, which was provided by YouGov. This partnership was funded by the Democracy Fund. YouGov was able to link the answers of the users to demographic questions such as age and partisanship to the ads received.

The process of collecting data from the users of the original and publicly available ad collector plug-in that did not participate in the YouGov survey was still the same. These users still remained anonymous to ProPublica. On the other hand, ads that were seen by the participants in the YouGov survey, with their demographic data stripped, became a part of ProPublica’s existing ads database.

Learnings from the project

After receiving a diverse sample of data regarding the Facebook political ads, ProPublica reached the following conclusions:

  • More than 70% of all the political ads were largely targeted by ideology. Most of these ads were presented to “at least twice as many people from one side of the political spectrum than the other”. Moreover, only about 18% of these political ads were seen by an even ratio of liberals and conservatives.
  • One of the major advertiser targeting both the sides of the political spectrum (liberals and conservatives) was AARP ( American Association of Retired Persons). AARP had spent around $700,000 on ads starting from May to the election. Most of these ads encouraged users to vote. Other ads urged people to hold their member of Congress accountable for voting yes on “last year’s bad health care bills.” The AARP has opposed efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act.
  • One of the ads seen by a majority of the people in the YouGov sample was from Tom Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” organization. This ad included a video saying, “We need to impeach Donald Trump before he does more damage,” for migrant children and Hurricane Maria deaths. The ad was seen mostly by the “self-identified liberals” in the YouGov’s sample.
  • A mysterious Facebook page called “America Progress Now” was discovered by ProPublica that urged liberals to vote for Green Party candidates. “The candidates themselves had never heard of the group, and we couldn’t find any address or legal registration for it”, writes Merrill.
  • A lot of other ads from liberal groups were seen that used misleading tactics similar to the ones used by groups such as Internet Research Agency in Russia to interfere with the 2016 US presidential elections. One such project called “Voter Awareness project” asked conservatives not to vote to re-elect Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, giving examples of Trump’s previous antagonism towards him. This group was however liberal. There were other liberals too such as the Ohio gubernatorial candidate Rich Cordray and the Environmental Defense Action Fund that ran political ads from pages with names of news organizations such as the “Ohio Newswire” and “Breaking News Texas.”

Merrill states that although they found out a way to determine how an ad is targeted, there are other complexities to Facebook’s systems which it can’t detect or understand. ProPublica is still looking out for answers to questions such as the impact of the algorithm used by Facebook to show ads to people who are most likely to click, the effect of some people seeing more expensive ads than others, how are cheap ads different from more expensive ones, and so on.

ProPublica is currently working on the Ad Collector project and will make future announcements regarding their further studies.

For more information, read the official ProPublica Post.

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