The NCLBC shall exercise unified political power for the betterment of people of color and consequently, all North Carolinians.

How you can help track political ads on Facebook

March 23rd, 2018

— With allegations mounting that Facebook allowed a high-tech political advertising firm to steal and misuse data on millions of users, one question remains unanswered: How exactly are political campaigns wielding the power of social media platforms like Facebook to sway voters?

Social media offers dark spaces for political campaigning

The answer to that question is bigger than the accusations of misconduct against Cambridge Analytica, the company at the center of the Facebook firestorm. It touches on how Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis may have used the firm to help win his seat in 2014 and how new progressive groups are using online tools to motivate liberal voters – without formally registering as political organizations.

Digital advertisers now wield enormous control over which users to target and how to tweak their messages – with few rules for disclosure.

Journalists, including those of us at WRAL News, already keep tabs on broadcast advertising through fact checks, Federal Communications Commission reports and other tools. That accountability isn’t always perfect, but it’s far better than what happens on Facebook.

To track this online advertising – and open up this shadowy world of influence for all to see – we need your help.

We’ve teamed up with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news outlet, to promote its Facebook Political Ad Collector. This free browser plugin, available for both Chrome and Firefox, enables users to automatically and anonymously send political ads on their Facebook pages to a public database that every voter, not just the press, can use. The system will allow both reporters and the public to analyze and track these ads throughout the election season.

And that’s important, given the variation in targeting we see online every day, as ProPublica reporters Julia Angwin and Jeff Larson explain:

“The nature of online advertising is such that ads appear on people’s screens for just a few hours, and are limited to the audience that the advertiser has chosen. So, 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.”

It’s important to note that the browser plugin does not collect information that can be used to identify you, and it removes names, comments and profile links of friends who have liked the ads before it collects them. Neither reporters nor the public can see which ads were shown to which users in the searchable database (to read more about how the plugin was created, see ProPublica’s methodology or the open-source code itself).

But the ad targeting data the plugin gathers from each ad in the coming months (which includes general categories like age and location) will help us learn more about how political campaigns target Facebook users, especially in North Carolina, and will empower deeper reporting about how these groups – on the left and the right – wage their war of influence online.

How well this all works depends on you.

The more of you who download and deploy the plugin, the more data we’ll be able to gather, and the more political ads we’ll be able to analyze, fact check and investigate.

So, if you’re a Facebook user, join us in our effort to bring more transparency to online advertising and help us provide more meaningful reporting about campaign ad spending to our community. Download and install the plugin for Chrome and Firefox today and get tracking.

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