Facebook ads were a mess during the 2016 US election. And in the 2018 midterms. And they still are a mess. The social media site maintains it’s trying to clean up the disinformation and shenanigans, but questionable schemes run rampant and influence peddlers often hide their identities.
So we’re redoubling our efforts to watch what’s happening on Facebook. Quartz is taking over stewardship of the Political Ad Collector—a browser extension that lets you help us monitor political ads.
If you join the thousands people who’ve added the extension to Chrome or Firefox already, then the ads you see on Facebook as you browse normally will be added to our database, along with Facebook’s explanation of why you saw those ads.
We use that database to report on Facebook and organizations that run political ads. For instance, last year Quartz exposed how at least $3 million in Facebook ads from pages with names like “Republican House Committee” and “Proud to be a Deplorable” led conservative seniors to a company called Metals.com, which has been accused of selling overpriced gold and silver coins to conservative seniors.
And Quartz showed how several banks were using a Facebook ad targeting tool called “lookalike audiences” to target ads in a way that may run up against US anti-discrimination laws.
“The Facebook Ad Collector was an important tool for The Globe and Mail during our federal election, allowing our reporters an inside look at the often opaque practices of political ad targeting,” says David Walmsley, Editor-in-Chief of The Globe and Mail.
We need your help to continue this project. If you use Chrome or Firefox, it’s easy to participate.
What we collect
- Text and links in the ad
- The picture in the ad
- Information Facebook provides about the ad’s target audience
- The time and date the ad was seen
- The number of times the ad has been seen
- The ad’s language of origin
What we don’t collect
Anything else, including:
- Your Facebook ID number or username
- Who has liked and shared a post
- Your name, birthday, friends list, phone number, etc.
- Identifying information about who saw what ad
What we’re looking for
- Political dirty tricks, like America Progress Now or The Voter Awareness Project
- Lobbyists for powerful industries hiding their identities behind fake names like “Energy4US” while pushing for industry-friendly bills
- Disinformation about the US Census
- Disinformation or profiteering about the Covid-19 pandemic
- Foreign interference in the US election
Jeremy B. Merrill, a machine-learning journalist on Quartz’s investigations team, has worked on code for the Political Ad Collector for several years and is leading Quartz’s effort to monitor ads ahead of the 2020 US election.