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Why Am I Seeing This? Interesting Facebook Ads From Our Political Ad Collector

We’re highlighting examples from our Facebook political ad collection that are interesting because of how they’re targeted, what they say or how they can help explain how Facebook’s advertising system works — and how it can be gamed.

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These ads are collected from participants in our Political Ad Collector project. If you want to help us by submitting the ads you see to our collection, join the project. It’s easy.

We’ll be updating this list as we find other interesting ads.

What Facebook Political Ad Algorithms Don’t Catch #

Sen. Kamala Harris bought ads in states across the country opposing Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Normally, an ad like the ones Harris ran would be considered “political” by Facebook’s definition, as it “advocates for or against an issue of national importance.”

But Facebook’s political ad archive, launched in May, hasn’t been catching all such ads.

Consider this ad about civil rights in schools, from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Even though “civil rights” is one of Facebook’s designated “issues of national importance,” it doesn’t include the disclosure either.

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Facebook has pitched its disclosure requirements and its searchable database of political ads and their sponsors as a major tool for transparency. The usefulness of those tools depends on the company’s ability to sort through huge quantities of ads and identify which ones are, by its own definition, political.

But even as the net Facebook made has caught things that aren’t political — like LGBT-themed events and news stories — ads like Harris’ are still slipping through.

Reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson said “enforcement will never be perfect but we regularly take steps to improve,” and said that the ads run by Harris and the Leadership Conference should have been marked as political.

— Ariana Tobin and Jeremy B. Merrill, Oct. 8, 2018

This Member of Congress Spends Big on Facebook Ads #

Early this year, residents of southern New Jersey saw a lot of Facebook ads from Don Norcross, their member of Congress. The ads prompted them to like his Facebook page and to sign up for email updates from his office.

Here’s an example:

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Norcross is a big buyer of Facebook ads. According to a ProPublica analysis, he is one of the top spenders on Facebook ads in the House. According to the House’s Statement of Disbursements, he spent $24,570 from his office budget on Facebook ads during the first six months of 2018, more than any other member, counting only direct spending. Other members may have spent more through digital marketing agencies, but the disclosure data does not break out spending by advertising platform.

Constituents of Norcross’ who like “beaches” saw ads focused on the environment, including one referencing his opposition to offshore drilling. Constituents who like “politics & social issues” — a Facebook category often used as a proxy for political engagement — saw ads touting Norcross’ support of protections for people in the LGBTQ community.

Norcross explained why he uses Facebook ads: “With so much news happening and so many issues facing New Jersey’s families, it’s important for me to communicate directly with residents, inform them about my work in Congress, invite them to community events, explain how our office helps people every day and perform these services for the public in a cost-effective way.”

Unlike campaign ads, members of Congress’ communications with their constituents are paid for with taxpayer dollars but are strictly regulated by a bipartisan committee that bans political messaging. Members can’t campaign for re-election using money from their official budgets, but they can communicate with constituents about their policy positions, their activities in Washington and the availability of constituent services in their districts.

What’s more, the ads are banned during the months before an election (so you aren’t likely to see many today).

You can see ads by Norcross in our database of our Political Ad Collector project You can also see the ads paid for by his re-election campaigns.

—Jeremy Merrill and Derek Willis, Sept. 25, 2018

Uber Targets Ad at Supporters of Black Lives Matter #

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When New York proposed a law that would cap the number of Uber cars allowed in the city, Uber turned to Facebook ads to organize supporters in the African-American community.

The ad above is part of the company's effort to remind New Yorkers that Uber serves people and parts of the city that it says traditional yellow cabs often avoid. It's a point of view that's backed by Al Sharpton, the NAACP and the National Urban League.

Though the company could have targeted black Facebook users a bit more directly — using Facebook's targeting selection called "African American multicultural affinity" — they chose a different route. They targeted the ad to people who "liked" the Black Lives Matter movement's Facebook page.

As is often the case with targeted ads, it is not clear to somebody who was targeted that they're seeing the ad because they liked Black Lives Matter — unless they click around in Facebook's system to figure it out.

According to Facebook's ad archive, Uber spent at least $20,000 on the ads that were part of the campaign that targeted Black Lives Matter supporters. (That number may actually be higher. The reason we don't know more precisely is that we can't always link everything we know about an ad to what Facebook discloses.)

Uber didn't comment.

—Jeremy Merrill, Sept. 5, 2018

The Biggest Political Advertiser You Probably Haven’t Heard Of: Marsy’s Law #

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Marsy’s Law for All is an organization seeking to pass a law to give crime victims a constitutional right to be informed of court proceedings and the right to speak about sentencing and parole decisions, among other changes to legal procedures. It’s up for a vote in six states. The organizers are advertising widely on Facebook to find new supporters — but unless you’re in one of the states in which the organizers are active, you probably won’t see the ads, which feature messages like “Stand up for equal rights for crime victims in Georgia!”

The chief proponent of the proposal is Henry Nicholas, the billionaire founder of computer chip company Broadcom, whose interest in victims’ rights seems to stem from his sister Marsy’s murder in 1983. He has also had some notable legal troubles, he was indicted in 2008 on charges, all eventually dismissed, of drug crimes and financial crimes related to Broadcom. He was recently arrested in Las Vegas and charged with drug crimes, but hasn’t entered a plea yet, according to court records. His sponsorship of state Marsy’s Law groups is often made clear in the ads, with disclaimers on ads such as “Sponsored ⋅ Paid for by Marsy’s Law for Georgia, LLC Henry T Nicholas, Chair.” Since May, the ads have been shown at least 43 million times on Facebook — but only in 14 states.

Though the proposal is nonpartisan, the organizers are advertising to people based on their partisanship, for instance, showing an ad last year to people in Georgia who Facebook says are interested in the Republican Party. The ad featured Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who, at the time, was considered the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination (he later lost), while those interested in the Democratic Party would’ve seen one featuring state Rep. Deborah Gonzalez, a Democrat. Not all ads targeted using political affiliation differ the message based on party.

The ads are also targeted to people interested in “Politics and social issues” — a large, catchall category on Facebook that many advertisers seem to use for non-partisan messages.

The Marshall Project wrote in depth about the Marsy’s Law movement’s proposed change to criminal procedure rules — and its track record in the six states where it’s already law.

You can see all the Marsy’s Law ads in our collection here.

—Jeremy Merrill, Sept. 5, 2018

Supreme Court Battlefield: North Dakota #

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A battle was fought over President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but the battlefield wasn’t just in the Senate or on cable news. IU was also in the Facebook feeds of North Dakotans.

Ads from advocacy groups on both sides targeted North Dakotans to push them to influence Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s vote. Heitkamp is a moderate Democrat who was perceived to be a swing vote on a nomination that most Democrats are likely to oppose. She is up for re-election in the fall.

Unlike political ads that are aimed at mobilizing an organization’s existing supporters, or partisans who’d be likely to agree with the group, many ads about Kavanaugh — on both sides — are targeted at anyone in North Dakota, like the above ads from Americans for Prosperity and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Adriel Hampton, a California political consultant suggests that North Dakota may be such a small state that it’s economical to “blanket” it with ads, rather than microtargeting them, even if they might be seen by many people who won’t agree. The Leadership Committee declined to say why they made these targeting choices; Americans for Prosperity did not respond to a request for comment.

Conservative groups highlight Kavanaugh’s “impeccable credentials” and say he’s a “fair jurist”; liberal groups say that he might rule Obama-era health care reforms unconstitutional or that he is part of an effort by Trump to “take over the Supreme Court.”

Here are some examples:

—Jeremy Merrill, Sept. 5, 2018

Cordray Campaign’s Made-Up News Pages Now Have Disclosure #

Last May, we wrote about a Facebook page called “Ohio Primary Info” that was running ads promoting news articles with negative information about Dennis Kucinich. Who was behind it? The ads didn’t say, but a tiny piece of text on the Facebook page said that “Ohio Primary Info” was actually run by the campaign of Rich Cordray — Kucinich’s opponent for the Democratic nomination for Ohio governor.

Now that Cordray is the Democratic nominee, his campaign has another pretend news page, this time called “Ohio Newswire,” surfacing real news articles about his opponent in the general election, Republican Mike DeWine. The campaign declined to comment.

The difference this time around? Now, Facebook’s ad disclosure rules have kicked in and it’s clear who’s behind “Ohio Newswire.” The ads say “Paid for by Cordray/Sutton Committee”.

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—Jeremy Merrill, Sept. 5, 2018

If you want to take part in our project to collect Facebook ad targeting information, find out more here. You can check which interests Facebook has assigned to you at https://facebook.com/ads/preferences.

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