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ProPublica tool finds misleading political ads on Facebook

Amid an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Facebook came under fire for its opacity on how it targets political ads. A few months ago, ProPublica released Political Ad Collector, a tool that crowdsources the job of monitoring ads -- including those that might not seem political at first. ProPublica’s Julia Angwin shares the findings with Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    If you are concerned about the impact that political ads on Facebook are having on elections around the world, you’re not alone. Facebook is notoriously opaque when it comes to letting the public know who is being targeted and how. So several months ago ProPublica released a tool for your browser called the Political Ad Collector which crowdsources the job of monitoring the ads that you might not even realize are political. Now we’re seeing some of the results from this tool. Julia Angwin is a reporter for ProPublica and joins me now. So first, what does the tool do?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    So basically, it’s a little teeny bit of software that you can add to your Chrome or Firefox web browser. And so, when you log on to Facebook, it will just notice what ads are being shown to you on your news feed and grab them, figure out which ones are political, add some of those political ones to the public database that we’re collecting of all the political ads we can find from Facebook.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This is different because it’s not like the TV ads that you and I might see at the same time. There’s a chance that you’re going to see ads that I will never see and vice versa?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Yeah. I mean the explicit goal of Facebook is the niche micro-targeting. And so most likely you and I will not see the same ads and so the goal here is to get as many as we can because otherwise no one would see them except for their targeted audiences which could be very small niche.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. You’ve also rolled it out to help in other elections around the world. How’s it going?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    It has been really interesting. So we started with the German elections in the fall and then we went to the Australia special referendum on gay marriage and we’ve been rolling it out in all these other countries since then. And in Australia, for instance, they did find some misleading ads – they found some sort of attempt to mislead certain groups and in Germany we saw the same thing with the far-right party. There was an ad that was misleading about characterizing a crime that was blamed on immigration but there was no evidence it was based on immigration. So you know it allows for journalists to do the kind of fact checking that is already done – just all the time on TV and radio and print ads.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And this is a little different than the TV ad where the candidate comes back and says ‘I endorse this message at the end’ because on these kind of ads on social media platforms they don’t have to say that and it could be third party groups?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Yeah these ads can be tied to a Facebook page that says “Look Americans, for America” and it’s sort of impossible to tell who are those people. Right? So Facebook has said they’re going to add more required disclosures but that hasn’t happened yet. So right now, you know, it allows for people to investigate who are these groups that are placing them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How does this translate to what will happen in 2018 in the U.S. elections and all the ads we are likely to be targeted against, were targeted through?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Yeah. So our goal is to really blanket the nation with our tool for this 2018 midterm elections because we want there to be as much transparency as there can be about political speech during this election.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Essentially what you’ve learned about what’s happening in Australia or somewhere else in Europe that can be applied to what happens here?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    What we have to do in each and every location is we have to we actually build an algorithm to teach it what is political speech in that country. And so it takes us a while to train the algorithm in each country. And I’m wondering whether we’re going to have to do that on local elections. Right now, we have sort of a national idea of political speeches but there may be really local issues that we don’t catch. So what we’re going to be constantly doing is training our algorithm to be better and better at catching political speech, which is kind of ironic because our whole goal here is to police algorithms and then we have to build algorithms to memorize the algorithm!

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And not all political ads are just about a specific candidate. You’re also finding that there are topics that institutions even companies are weighing in on. There are political?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Yes, there’s a lot of issue based advertising particularly now early in the cycle. And what’s really frustrating is that the Federal Election Commission is trying to build new disclosure rules that make it so that internet ads have to be more accountable. They have to have a little look, kind of like ‘I paid for this line,’ but they’re not necessarily going to apply to issue ads – they’re really only going to be for the candidates. And so, there is going to be a lot of issue advertising that’s pretty unaccountable during this election unless something changes with the way our election laws are regulated here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And right now anyone can go and download this tool?

  • JULIA ANGWIN:

    Yeah. You just go to our website, Pro Publica. It says ‘help us monitor political ads.’ There’s a link to the Firefox or Chrome browser extension. And what’s really fun for users is when you open up the browser and you’re on Facebook, it actually shows you ads you’re not seeing. So it says ‘here’s the ads you’re seeing that are political.’ And then it tells you at least the ones that weren’t targeted. So you get to see a little bit of like what other people are seeing on Facebook.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Julia Angwin of ProPublica, thank you.

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