Stock images of American flags, smiling children and a man nervously looking over a health care bill. These are the images of political campaign ads—full of emotion but short of depth. But a new, free online archive of ads and analysis aims to change that this primary season.
True to its open-web roots, Internet Archive launched its Political TV Ad Archive, a new website that will house all the presidential ads expected to air in eight battleground states during the primaries. The organization also partnered with a line-up of fact-checking outfits and follow-the-money experts to provide context around these political messages.
“We want to bring accountability to these elections,” said Nancy Watzman, managing editor of the Television Archive for the Internet Archive. The organization wants to provide a “good resource,” as “these things become fast and furious,” she said.
As the presidential primaries near, experts predict an explosion of spending — up to $4.4 billion — in political TV ads that will flood the airwaves this election year. With these estimates, 2016 has the potential to be the most expensive election in U.S. history by the year’s end. Internet Archive hopes to make sense of all the clutter as ads begin to bombard the airwaves in key battleground states.
“Before the primaries are over, the public in key primary states will be buried in campaign ads generating more heat than light,” said Roger Macdonald, director of the Television Archive, in a statement released Friday. “This new website will be a resource for journalists, academics, civic groups and the general public to have a better chance at separating lies from truths.”
In January, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump aired his first TV spot, which touted his campaign plan to ban Muslims and build a wall along the southern border to “stop illegal immigration.”
PolitiFact later found out that video footage supposedly of the U.S.-Mexican border was actually from an Italian TV ad that showed refugees crossing into Morocco. When a Hillary Clinton TV spot claimed that drug prices more than doubled in the last seven years, FactCheck.org said the statement was misleading.
Watzman said this analysis includes figuring out when there’s a “twisting of the truth,” when a political ad is not an outright lie but does not give the full context.
Watzman said the library also collects metadata that will alert reporters and voters of granular details, such as how frequently an ad was aired, who’s funding the ad, etc. But the political ad tracker also pairs those nuggets of information with analysis from experts like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Center for Public Integrity. The organization argued that local stations who air these ads don’t provide enough context around them.
Initially, Watzman said the team and its partners have sifted through 100,000 hours of footage and identified more than 15,000 airings of largely presidential ads. As the primaries deepen, Internet Archives expects the library to become more comprehensive. The metadata is downloadable as a spreadsheet and videos can be embedded with all the above information.
And it’s all free.
Funded by the Knight Foundation, Watzman said the organization is looking to expand the operation into the rest of the election year.