Bringing transparency to online political ads

There are few rules around political advertising online. Now a new tool promises to help track how political ads show up in your social media feeds.
To track how politicians and political groups target advertising on Facebook, the journalistic organisation Propublica has created the Political Ad Collector. (The Associated Press/Elise Amendola)

Right now, there aren't any rules in place to keep track of how people and companies advertise online. Once an ad -- maybe for a mattress or a department store -- has passed through your feed, it's gone.

And that applies to political advertising as well.

ProPublica is a non-profit investigative journalism organization. To try and capture how politicians and political groups are advertising online, it has created the Political Ad Collector.

Jeff Larson is a reporter and developer at ProPublica, and one of the people behind the tool. "It's an extension that runs in people's browsers," Jeff says. "Every time they visit Facebook, it grabs all of the advertisements that users see. And then it sends them to us and we classify whether they're political or not."

Jeff Larson is a reporter and developer at Propublica and one of the people behind the Political Ad Collector. (Propublica)

ProPublica needs the public to collect ads because the system set up by Facebook makes it nearly impossible for anyone to gather information on their advertisers. "It's easier for anybody in the world to get information about private individuals [from] Facebook than it is to get about advertisers," Jeff says.

Jeff and his colleagues at ProPublica are hoping to learn more about the world of political advertising now, and also provide a record for the future. "What we're looking for is unregulated political speech online. And we're doing it because currently there's no transparency in any country that we've looked at."

So far the tool is primarily running in the United States and Germany.  There are also a few users in other countries, including Canada.

If you want to try the Political Ad Collector, you can download it here (Chrome)(Firefox).


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