Throughout the 2016 election cycle, American voters were inundated with political ads on Facebook like they had never been before. Among those most inflammatory were those purchased by foreign actors with an eye on sowing discord and infusing bad blood into what was, admittedly, already a soured electoral season.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has (belatedly) recognized the power of his platform to influence elections and shape national conversations—and is, therefore, supposedly taking steps to improve the ways in which Facebook deals with attempted political sabotage.
But the stakes are high—the highest, in fact. And so, it’s fair to assume we’ll see more of the same shady business again this election year—if not by foreign governments, then by our own political class. This presents us with an opportunity to observe crooked activity on Facebook for ourselves because, if anything, we know what it looks like now. What’s more, we can start to do it today, and not months after the elections have passed.
To that aim, Gizmodo is pleased to announce a new collaboration with ProPublica, recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for public service, and other newsrooms around the world, for the purpose of shining a light on Facebook in advance of the coming midterm elections. Using tools created by ProPublica, Gizmodo will be able to observe and analyze tens of thousands of political ads.
Doing so will help us report on the fake, strange, and deceptive ads that are flooding our feeds nearly every moment of the day.
And that, reader, is where you come in: ProPublica’s Political Ad Collector relies entirely on a network of volunteer users, such as yourself, to gather ads for its database, which you can also peruse at any time. Given that, we’re here to solicit your help.
The tool copies ads that you see (or probably instinctively ignore) while scrolling through your Facebook feed. It is a browser-based plugin that does not actually collect any data from Facebook itself. The data is instead pulled from the HTML of the ads that people pay to push into your feed directly from your browser. Most importantly: The plugin does not collect any personal information, of any kind.
Furthermore, the Political Ad Collector is open-source and can be audited by anyone.
ProPublica’s tool has already been used to locate political ads that were actually scams and malware; ads that are ignoring federal election rules by failing to disclose who paid for and approved them; special counsel Robert Mueller’s fake Facebook page; and, for kicks, this hilarious ad trumpeting how awesome nuclear power is for the environment used to target vegans ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
As ProPublica notes: “Facebook gives users more information about why a particular ad is targeted to them than other online platforms provide to their customers. Our tool will also collect that targeting information provided by Facebook, which may help illuminate what viewership the ads are trying to reach.”
Let’s be real: Facebook will be a cesspool of subversion, dishonesty, and sabotage in the weeks and months to come, no matter how many tools and moderators they throw at it. We hope you’ll help us suss it out.
Got a tip? Shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org