Political ads on Facebook had a huge impact during the U.S. presidential race, with thousands of them bought by Russian operatives in a bid to tip the election in favour of Donald Trump. But even when used for purposes that aren’t nefarious, political advertising on Facebook, which allows for highly specific targeting of users, is murky territory.
“There’s no CRTC (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S.’s FCC), advertising standards board or press council equivalent. That, combined with the fact that you might never see a certain Facebook ad if you haven’t been included as part of the ad’s targeting options, means it’s becoming a significant challenge to figure out exactly how a party or campaign is positioning itself. It makes it very difficult to keep political entities accountable.”
Diving into political ads on Facebook
In a bid to shed light on political advertising on the platform, the Globe and Mail is using ProPublica’s Political Ad Collector or PAC (a nod to the Political Action Committees that fund many of today’s political ads) to track ads ahead of provincial elections in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Quebec.
The tool, which was rolled out in September last year, was first used in the in the run-up to Germany’s parliamentary elections, for which ProPublica partnered with news outlets Spiegel Online, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Tagesschau. As part of these efforts, it was revealed that Facebook allowed anti-Green Party ads of dubious origin to remain on the platform, despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s promises to ensure the campaign’s integrity.
“One of the big reasons we’re doing this is that we really don’t know what we’re going to find,” Cardoso said.
“Do Canadian parties use precision Facebook targeting as much as parties in the U.S. do? Are there seemingly non-politically-affiliated Facebook pages out there promoting candidates in certain areas? Who knows! I’m excited to find out. This is also a great experiment for us in trying to crowdsource some really essential information that will keep Canadian political parties accountable, so we’re excited about that, too.”
The Political Ad Collector, a browser extension available for Chrome and Firefox, collects ads displayed on users’ news feeds, with an algorithm determining which ones are political, and adds them to a public database.
So far, outlets in eight countries are working with the tool, including ones in Australia, Switzerland, Finland and Italy. The algorithm needs to be trained for each new location to enable it to identify political speech in that particular country, explained ProPublica’s Julia Angwin in an interview with PBS.
For Cardoso and the Globe and Mail, the main challenge will be to convince enough people to download the tool to ensure a wide spectrum of political ads can be collected. But, he said, once underway, the setup requires minimal human effort.
“I keep an eye on the incoming feed of ads the system suspects are of a political nature, and moderate out any ads that turn out to be false positives every couple of days, but otherwise it’s just humming along right now,” Cardoso said.
Some Canadian political ads have already been captured. In late January, the Globe and Mail co-published a story with ProPublica about how Airbnb used Facebook ads to target people living in Toronto during a period when city officials were debating whether to pass a series of rules and regulations for Airbnb rentals.