With the federal election around the corner, what we know about targeted ads on Facebook

Finding out who's behind those political ads you keep seeing.

Finding out who's behind those political ads you keep seeing.

Facebook's transparency rules require advertisers to disclose whether an ad is sponsored and who paid for it. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)
Listen11:33

In Canada, our next federal election is less than a year away, which means in a few months you'll start seeing political ads in your social media feed—if you aren't already.

In TV and radio, political ads are tightly regulated. Social-media ads, however, are not. This makes their origins much harder to track.

The ease of posting online ads—and targeting them to particular demographics—means that numerous groups are engaging in the practice.

And not all of them are as they appear.

News broke this week about a group called Ontario Proud. It appeared to be a conservative grass-roots group with a strong Facebook following.  

It has been credited with helping Ontario premier Doug Ford's successful election campaign. The group's financial report, however, revealed that the majority of its funding actually comes from property developers and construction firms.   

"There definitely are some ads that are trying to persuade people to act in a certain way, or in some cases there are interest groups related to industries, that are trying to influence public opinion on a policy," ProPublica journalist Jeremy Merrill told Spark host Nora Young.
Jeremy Merrill is a journalist at ProPublica (Milan Reed)

As a non-profit investigative agency, ProPublica has been monitoring political ads on Facebook.  To combat their unregulated influence, it has developed a browser extension tool called the "Political Ad Collector."

Merrill is one of the people behind the Political Ad Collector.  

"[Facebook] require ads to have this line, 'as a paid for by' that's supposed to accurately represent the name of the entity or person responsible for the ad. That's how they phrase it. The trouble is, Facebook says it can't check that [whoever placed the ad] telling the truth," said Merrill.  

In response to the U.S. presidential election that saw alleged Russian interference, Facebook has since adopted new regulations to archive ads placed on its platform.

"Now all, or almost all, political ads in the United States are contained in that searchable database. That database is huge—it has hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ads."

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