The 2016 U.S. election was a cacophony thanks in no small part to social media platforms like Facebook, where campaigns, dark-money groups, and Russian government operatives could pour hundreds of millions into online ads. Those ads were often hypertargeted to people’s precise interests, like the civil rights movement or whether a user worked at a mosque. Some ads were tailored for single mothers or men interested in the military, and the text of those ads would be fine-tuned to ensure that whoever saw them would be likely to react emotionally and even act. Some of those actors include voter-targeting firms like Cambridge Analytica, now notorious because it may have used wrongfully harvested Facebook data on millions of users for its clients Ted Cruz and then Donald Trump. All of this voter targeting has the potential to be extremely manipulative: Some of the Russian ads discouraged black people from voting.
Online political ads in the U.S. aren’t legally required to include information within the ad about who pays for them in the same way ads in print, radio, and television do. And although Facebook has started including information about what pages paid for the ads you see and a little information about the money spent on the ad and how it was targeted, researchers and journalists are still largely in the dark about how political-ad buyers use Facebook’s targeting tools to reach, and potentially manipulate, voters with more nuanced categories, like a person’s profession or level of education. All of which is why Slate is joining a collaboration led by nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, which has built an easy-to-use tool that collects the political ads that target Facebook users. The effort—the Facebook Political Ad Collector—has already gathered nearly 60,000 ads and put them in a searchable public database.
This tool has already helped expose all kinds of shadowy and abusive targeting practices, but there’s still more to find. And that’s where you could come in. We’re asking our readers to download a simple browser extension that will scrape all the political ads that appear in your Facebook feed. This tool is built with ironclad privacy protections to ensure that none of the information scraped is personally identifiable in any way—only the ads are collected.
Facebook recently announced it was eliminating about 5,000 ad categories this fall to prevent misuse by advertisers attempting to exclude certain racial, ethic, or religious groups. It’s not clear what all those categories are, nor is it clear that removing the ability to exclude groups will prevent advertisers from targeting others. No matter what, the company’s recent history in this area demands more scrutiny. If you look at the ad-targeting information tied to the Russian disinformation ads that Facebook disclosed as part of an ongoing investigation in Congress earlier this year, it was clear that many of the ads were targeted to people interested in certain figures and events, like Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad al-Baqir, or the black American civil rights movement. Other ads are tailored to reach people who are members of certain groups, which could suggest information like their race, economic status, or religion. More research is needed to understand just how political ads fine-tuned to our precise interests and demographics can manipulate us—and influence how we decide to vote.