BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - New research predicts candidates and Political Action Committees (PACs) will spend $1.8 billion on digital ads in this 2018 midterm election cycle, but tracking who’s paying for these ads and how they’re targeting your Facebook feed can be tough, even though Facebook has measures to help identify who’s running ads.
A sponsor can run them under multiple obscure Facebook pages, like ads by “stop the liberals” or “sleeping Joe.” A click takes you to their pages with very few followers, and you have to look closely to figure out the ads are sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The committee wouldn’t respond to our request for a comment.
Other pages we found with few followers and lots of ads lead us to shadowy origins like the left-leaning “news for democracy.” We couldn’t find a Facebook page, a website, or even a physical address. The Raycom Investigative team analyzed one week of the group’s Facebook ads, finding it ran nearly 450, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in just seven days in all 50 states.
“I think it’s a little bit troubling to be associated with a group that we have no idea who they are,” says Meghan Milloy. She co-founded “Republican Women for Progress” and unknowingly appeared in a “news for democracy” ad about republican women turning on their party.
“They are using the text as if it’s me talking about myself," Milloy found. “Which, you know, it’s close, but it’s not exactly the same.”
Milloy is still a registered Republican and tried to get the group to remove the ad - with no luck.
“Seems like you can kind of go through the back end of Facebook and they’re kind of there,” Milloy says. "They’re funded by “news for democracy” or some kind of shell group or something like that. It’s very difficult to figure out anything about who’s behind it, who’s funding them, you know, where they are, or how we even get in touch to say, “hello, thank you for using our likeness. We don’t want that.”
Federal law doesn’t require disclosure on some political ads, unless you name a candidate and the ad clearly advocates for or against a candidate.
“If the ads are not truthful or transparent, they shouldn’t be going out,” says Jason Mollica, a professorial lecturer at American University. “You wouldn’t see it on television, so you shouldn’t see it on your social media network.”
The FCC requires TV stations keep a detailed account of all political spending, and you can find how much those ads cost and who paid for them easily online, but Facebook ads aren’t as transparent.
“People are really concerned about transparency and trust,” Mollica warnts. “They want to be able to trust our networks and social media but if ads like this are getting up there and Facebook is saying, ‘we’re trying to make sure that this doesn’t get up' and it’s still getting up; more needs to be done.”
Tulane University Social Media Expert Ashley Nelson says most of the ads she’s seen violate some part of the guidelines, and admits there’s little Facebook can do.
“How do you police this? I mean you’ve got two billion users out there,” said Nelson.
We used ProPublica’s Facebook ad tracking tool to look at political ads targeting you, and found several candidates using Facebook to target big groups like: “people 18 and older who live near Birmingham,” but also smaller targets like this judge’s ad targeting: “people ages 25 and older who live near Irondale.”
Those ads changed as we narrowed down the search to conservative men in Alabama. Those feeds saw ads including one for Chief Justice Candidate Tom Parker because you may be: "male, 40 or older, and interested in the key words ‘Donald Trump.’”
When we switch those filters to women in Alabama considered liberal, we found several of the same candidate ads for both categories, but also more targeted ones like this from congressional candidate Mallory Hagan targeting people over 18 who also were interested in the keywords “Barack Obama.”
With digital political ad spending jumping from $71 million in 2014 to almost $2 billion this time around, experts say we need greater transparency so that we know the motive and the money behind each Facebook post.
“It’s terrifying for transparency and I think it can have a real impact on people that may not, you know, want to dig in to the back end of the Facebook ads and want to, kind of, do their research,” Milloy says.
We found one ad flagged as a political Facebook ad by the ProPublica tool that was paid for by the Birmingham Mayor’s office and we asked the mayor’s office for a comment on the idea of using tax dollars to pay for such an ad.
“Residents of Birmingham tell us that they want transparency and access to information, including good and useful news about what is going on in the city,” said Mayor Woodfin’s Communications Director Rick Journey. “In order to do that, we send out news releases, distribute flyers, post on social media and the city website and send text messages to those who opt in. We also advertise bid opportunities, major special events, and important announcements through broadcast, print, including minority-owned firms, and social media. We have a duty to reach our residents every way we can. The Facebook advertising you inquired about includes publicizing changes to the Brush and Trash Pickup Schedule, community development questionnaires, town hall announcements, closure and detour information for the Green Springs Avenue Bridge and 99 Voices, an initiative to give voice to our neighborhoods and empower individuals to make a difference in their communities.”
You can track who may be targeting you through the ProPublica tool.