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Politics and Government

How to know if you’re being targeted by campaigns on Facebook in Colorado

Social media companies aim for transparency in 2018. Here’s what you need to know.

A screenshot from a political advertisement on Facebook.
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We know you’re seeing political ads even if you don’t watch TV.

They’re showing up on YouTube videos, Twitter, Instagram, and, especially Facebook.

In his most recent campaign filing, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis reported spending $500,000 for social media advertising at the end of August. By comparison, his Republican opponent Walker Stapleton, has spent $19,434 on digital advertising during the general election campaign.

Facebook ads purchased by Russian interests targeting American voters may have had an impact on the 2016 elections. And since then, social media companies are ramping up transparency efforts amid scrutiny from Congress and consumers.

Who are they targeting and why?

Laura Edelson, a doctoral student at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, was part of a team that examined about eight weeks of Facebook political ads starting in late May as part of a research team.

“On average, everyone in the U.S. saw some political ads,” she said. “There’s probably a lot of people who saw zero or one, probably a lot of people … who were particularly targetable saw hundreds.”

So how do you know how you are being targeted? Let’s take a look at a few platforms, their disclosure efforts and how you can track the ads.

Facebook ads

Facebook took the most heat for a variety of Russian advertising efforts aimed at polarization and even vote suppression in the 2016 elections. In May, the platform created a public archive of Facebook political ads. You may search the archive by state, politician or keyword.

Be prepared to be overwhelmed.

A search for “Colorado” reveals about 30,000 results. Some of those appear to be similar ads aimed at different audiences. For instance, language in an ad might be tweaked depending on whether it’s targeted at men or women, Edelson said.

“When you see an ad, it isn’t random,” she said. “That was the ad that was most likely to connect with you” based on what Facebook knows about you and who an advertiser is targeting.

Here’s what consumers can do on Facebook

  • Use the information boxes that appear when you scroll past political ads. The box will tell you who paid for the advertisement.
  • Click on “see information about this ad” in the box to get an idea of whom the ad is targeting, how many people it reaches and how much is being spent.
  • If you visit a candidate or political organization’s Facebook page, click on the “info and ads” tab on the left to see all the Facebook ads offered.

For an easier way to navigate the ads — and help track them — visit ProPublica. The nonprofit news organization — which partners with The Colorado Sun on the ElectionLand project — is tracking Facebook ads with help from the public.

The ProPublica archive allows you to search based on gender, age, location and political ideology. That’s a different set of search features than those found on Facebook’s archive.

The ProPublica dataset is narrower but easier to navigate, especially if you’re interested in seeing who is targeting your or other demographics.

And ProPublica needs your help. Collect Facebook political ads that you see on your page by installing the Chrome or Firefox plugin. If you use the plug-in, that way you’ll see the political ads you might have missed, as well as the other ads targeting you.

Here’s an example of Facebook ads targeting Coloradans

  • An ad from Polis targeting younger people and encouraging them to register to vote.
  • An ad from Stapleton saying Polis wants to raise taxes. It links to a site to donate to Stapleton’s campaign.
  • An ad from Prosperity Denver featuring outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper encouraging that city’s voters to support an initiative to fund scholarships for students.

Google and Twitter ads

Other social networks are also making efforts to be more transparent about political advertising.

Google offers a searchable and filterable library of ads being served up to consumers on its networks. Search by political district or zip code, by candidates or advertisers, by amount spent and more with the online tool.

“Google’s transparency efforts are actually great,” said Edelson, the NYU researcher.

Twitter has a policy on identifying political advertisers in the United States, but it’s especially focused on federal candidates. And the advertiser search is limited to Twitter handles, and shows promoted posts for the most recent seven days.

The NYU Tandon School team is also examining other platforms, Edelson said.

“It just doesn’t look like advertising on Twitter is in the same ballpark as advertising on Facebook.”

Editor’s note: Sandra Fish participated in a group of journalists and academics from which Facebook sought feedback last November.