After the 2016 presidential election, Facebook received criticism and questions over a lack of transparency into micro-targeted political advertising on its platform. ProPublica has been particularly persistent in its coverage of electioneering on the social media giant. In the fall 2017, the non-profit news organization launched a project to crowdsource the collection of political ads on Facebook. The data is shared with journalists in bulk and piecemeal as part of Election Data Bot.
RJI Senior Editor James Gordon spoke with ProPublica News Application Developer Jeremy Merrill, who covers Facebook. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Gordon: Before launching the ad collector, what made ProPublica interested in this topic?
Merrill: At that time, we knew that micro-targeting was a buzzword. We knew that a lot of campaign consultants were saying that they were capable of tailoring their messages to the audience in a way that was novel. It’s interesting technology that theoretically has consequences for democracy. And it is just an interesting look into campaigns tactics and how they see the world.
Gordon: This summer, Facebook released new tools intended to give the public more transparency into politically advertisements on their platform. How are these new measures inadequate?
Merrill: Think about what we know about Russian election meddling: We know from what Facebook released to the Senate Intelligence Committee that, for instance, the Russians had African-American themed misinformation sites. And we know that they used Facebook’s targeting categories to reach them, targeting people who were African-American, targeting people who liked the African-American civil rights movement, that sort of thing. Those categories still exist. And so we want to be able to know who is using those sorts of categories to target people and what they’re doing with it.
Facebook’s tools do not allow you to do this. All they give you about targeting is an age, gender and location break down of who actually saw the ad, but they don’t tell you who the advertiser chose to see the ad. And that’s an important piece of the discussion.
Gordon: What are you paying close attention to in the lead-up to the midterm elections?
Merrill: We’re definitely looking for shenanigans. It’s one thing to talk about Medicare to older voters and to talk about schools to parenting-age voters. You’ve kinda got to know your audience. As long as you’re saying both of those things elsewhere in more public forums.
Shenanigans is when you’re saying to older voters, “Social Security and Medicare are very important, and we’re going to preserve them,” and then to conservative voters who you’re saying, “We’re going to look at changing the rules to fix this deficit.” Contradictory stuff.
We’re also looking for dirty tricks. The canonical examples are like “Democrats vote Wednesday” or “you can vote by text message,” those kinds of things. We’re not going to see those until Friday before the election, if we see them at all.
Gordon: What makes this issue so important?
Merrill: I think that the information about who an ad is targeted to, the choices that were in the advertiser’s head, are vitally important to understanding this issue. It’s a huge issue. It’s vital to our national conversation in a democracy to know what politicians are up to. And so we’re committed to continuing to make public whatever we can about the choices advertisers make in targeting political messages to people.
Facebook has the power to make all this public, too.