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What We Learned From Collecting 100,000 Targeted Facebook Ads

Since we launched our Facebook Political Ad Collector project in fall 2017, more than 16,000 people have participated in it. They all agreed to install a browser plug-in that anonymously sent us the ads they see when they browse Facebook. We used that data to understand and report on how political messaging on Facebook works, and how the system is being gamed to manipulate the public discourse.

Although the number of users is large, over the summer we noticed a potential snag: We were receiving more ads from Democrats and progressive groups than from Republicans or conservative groups. Our hunch was that this was because we had more liberal participants than conservatives ones.

We tried a number of things to make our ad collection more diverse: to start, we bought our own Facebook ads asking people across a range of states to install the ad collector. We also teamed up with Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, for a special election-oriented project, in an attempt to reach a broader swath of users.

But because we made the Political Ad Collector almost completely anonymous, we couldn’t say much definitively about the audience. We also couldn’t know for sure how much of the skew in our findings was because of the people who participated in the project and how much of it was because left-leaning groups used Facebook advertising more than (or differently than) conservative groups.

To dig deeper, we partnered with some academic researchers and a research firm called YouGov to create a panel of users from across a wide spectrum of demographic groups and political ideologies who would agree to use a special version of the ad collector plug-in that was less anonymous. For these users, we had a unique ID that was tied back to data about them provided to us by YouGov — demographics, political leaning, race, state of residence, but not name or address.

This collaboration was suggested, and funded, by the Democracy Fund.

YouGov paid members of this new group to install a special version of the Political Ad Collector browser plug-in. We were able to link their answers to demographic questions — like age and partisanship — to the ads that they sent us. Through this survey, 3,588 participants submitted at least five ads from Oct. 15 until the election. The group was designed to yield a large and diverse enough sample that will let us, and academic researchers who study political ads, make statistically valid claims about the ads people see.

We didn’t change anything about the way we collect data from users of the original, publicly available ad collector plug-in who were not participating in the YouGov survey. They remain anonymous to us, and we collected absolutely no personal information from them.

Ads that were seen by participants in the YouGov survey, with the demographic data stripped, are part of our existing database of ads. We aren’t publishing the survey-derived data, though we have shared it with some academic researchers.

Now that we’ve got a better sample that can help us draw broad conclusions about Facebook political ads, here’s some of what we’ve learned from the project:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 70 percent of all the political ads we saw were highly targeted by ideology. Most ads were shown to at least twice as many people from one side of the political spectrum than the other. Only about 18 percent of political ads were seen by anything close to an even ratio of liberals and conservatives.

One advertiser that targeted both sides was AARP, which spent about $700,000 on ads from May to the election. Many of those ads simply urged viewers to vote; some ads encouraged people to hold their member of Congress accountable for voting yes on “last year’s bad health care bills.” The AARP has opposed efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

“AARP has a long history of nonpartisan voter engagement,” an AARP spokesperson said in a statement. “Our goal was to engage our members, whose views span the ideological spectrum. These facts guided our strategy.”

The ad that was seen by the most people in the YouGov sample was this one from Tom Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” organization, which included a video saying, “We need to impeach Donald Trump before he does more damage,” citing “legally segregated camps” for migrant children and Hurricane Maria deaths. The ad was seen almost exclusively by self-identified liberals in our sample. According to Facebook, Steyer has spent $2.3 million on Facebook ads between May and Election Day. (Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, are donors to ProPublica, and Taylor is on our board.)

But because the Facebook advertising system makes it easy to show ads to very small target audiences, a relatively small number of participants in our project saw the “Need to Impeach” ad. Of the 3,588 people who submitted at least five ads from Oct. 15 until Election Day, only 146 saw it.

That microtargeting may help explain why, even with a pretty large number of participants, and including all these additional participants who better represent the country, we still didn’t see any ads or advertisers caught up in investigations and news stories about foreign election meddling. We did, however, report on a mysterious Facebook page called “America Progress Now” urging liberals to vote for Green Party candidates. The candidates themselves had never heard of the group, and we couldn’t find any address or legal registration for it.

We also saw ads from liberal groups that used misleading tactics we first saw being employed in 2016 by groups like the Internet Research Agency in Russia. “Voter Awareness Project” urged conservatives not to vote to re-elect Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican senator, citing Trump’s previous antagonism toward him. But the group was actually run by a prominent liberal. And other liberals, like Ohio gubernatorial candidate Rich Cordray and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, ran political ads from pages with names that implied they were news organizations, like “Ohio Newswire” and “Breaking News Texas.”

We also found a fair number of political ads that Facebook didn’t label as political as part of their new system, including clearly political ones from Sen. Kamala Harris, Uber, Alliance Defending Freedom and others.

Open Questions

We still have some unanswered questions about how advertising works on Facebook, including some that go beyond political ads:

While we found a way to determine, in part, how an ad is targeted, there are complexities to Facebook’s systems that we can’t detect or understand. For instance, what is the impact of the algorithm Facebook uses to show ads to whoever is mostly likely to click? Upturn, a think tank that researches equity issues in the design and governance of technology, says in a court filing that they ran a job ad for a bus driver and, on its own, Facebook showed this ad to four times as many men as women.

Advertisers pay Facebook more for their ads to be seen by some kinds of people than by others — based on, for example, age, demographics and median income. What’s the effect of some people seeing on average more expensive ads than others? How big is the disparity? Whose attention is cheap, and whose is expensive? How do cheap ads differ from more expensive ones?

Facebook has a “lookalike audience” ad-targeting feature, which lets advertisers target people who are “similar to” their page’s visitors or personal contact info they upload. Could this be a sneaky (or even unintentional) way to target a housing or job ad in a discriminatory way?

Facebook classifies individual users by their political beliefs and their “multicultural affinity,” letting advertisers show ads just to, for instance, people who are “very conservative” or who have “Multicultural affinity: African American (US).” How accurate are Facebook’s guesses? You can see political ads targeted by multicultural affinity here: African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic - All, Hispanic - English Dominant, Hispanic - Spanish Dominant, Hispanic - Bilingual.

One final note: Now that the midterm elections have finished, with only a few U.S. elections happening in 2019, we’re busy figuring out the Ad Collector’s next chapter. We’ll make an announcement shortly.

Election Day Was Filled With Frustrations, Claims of Mischief and Glimmers of Hope

A handful of states had ballot measures aimed at making it easier for people to vote or designed to take some of the politics out of how the country’s electoral districts are drawn up. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

Election Day in America brought its familiar mix of misery and allegations of mischief: Aging voting machines crashed; rain-soaked citizens stood in endless lines; laws that many regarded as attempts to suppress turnout among people of color led to both confusion at the polls and angry calls for recounts and investigations.

Aging Machines, Crowds, Humidity: Problems at the Polls Were Mundane but Widespread

People wait in line at a polling station in Miami, Florida, late on Election Day. (Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

If the defining risk of Election Day 2016 was a foreign meddling, 2018’s seems to have been a domestic overload. High turnout across the country threw existing problems — aging machines, poorly trained poll workers and a hot political landscape — into sharp relief.

Florida Election Brings High Turnout, Some Voting Snags

Turnout strained election locations across the state but did not appear to overwhelm them. Voters experienced a smattering of problems throughout the state, including issues with voting machines and unnecessary provisional ballot use.

Missouri Changed Voter ID Requirements, Citing Confusion. Yet on Election Day, There Was Confusion.

Stuart Wood, from Stockton, Missouri, votes in Stockton on Tuesday, Nov. 6. (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

Voters in Missouri faced confused poll workers as they went to vote on Tuesday, with many reporting they were turned away for not having valid photo identification. The confusion was a result of an October court ruling that allowed Missourians to cast ballots with a range of forms of identification.

Taylor Fritz, 25, brought the voter registration card mailed to him by the state to cast a ballot at his polling station, the Legacy Park Community Center in Lees Summit. But poll workers there told him the card was not an acceptable form of ID, even though a state website specifically says it is. There was even a poster in the gymnasium where he cast a ballot that stated registration cards were acceptable, Fritz said.

“Lucky for me I was able to show my valid state issued ID,” Fritz, an insurance broker, said in an interview. “The problem is not everyone has a state ID like me.”

What Went Wrong at New York City Polling Places? It Was Something in the Air. Literally.

Voters wait in the line to cast their votes in the midterm election in Manhattan on Tuesday, Nov. 6. (Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The post-mortem on what went wrong at polling places across New York City on Election Day won’t be done for days, if not weeks. Across the city — from Brooklyn to Manhattan to the Bronx — ballot scanners jammed and malfunctioned, sowing chaos at polling places.

But preliminarily, it looks like one of those rare occasions where election officials can plausibly blame the weather, at least in part.

These Voters Had to Wait for Hours: “It Felt Like a Type of Disenfranchisement”

Voters stand in line at a polling location in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Tuesday, Nov. 6. (Bridget Bennett/Bloomberg via Getty Images))

Melanie Taylor arrived at her polling place in a Charleston, South Carolina, church at 7:30 a.m., only to find more than 100 people in line ahead of her. Some of them had already been waiting since 6:15. The voting site was using a computerized login for the first time, and the system was down.

After 45 minutes, with the line still out the door, Taylor had to give up and leave for work. (She leads a social work program.) She’s planning to try again later and has been monitoring the wait times through a neighborhood Facebook group. The news was not encouraging.

“It felt like a type of disenfranchisement, even though there wasn’t any violation of voting rights,” Taylor said. “The wait has been all day three hours or more, which is ridiculous.”

Voters Get Texts With Incorrect Election Information

Text messages received by a slew of voters — from organizations like Vote.org, EveryTown for Gun Safety and TurboVote — reportedly included incomplete or incorrect information on where and when to vote.

Judge Orders Polling Locations in Texas County Remain Open

A state district judge ordered Harris County to operate nine polling locations until 8 p.m., an hour after they were scheduled to close. The polling sites experienced issues with technology or were delayed in opening Tuesday morning.

Poll Worker in Missouri Asks If Voter Is a Member of the “Caravan”

After a voter supplied his passport as identification in Missouri, a poll worker asked, “Are you a member of the caravan?” The voter told HuffPost the exchange was bizarre. “I have an American passport. What does that have to do with the caravan?” he said.

Georgia Polling Location to Stay Open Later After Machine Issues

The Annistown Elementary School precinct near Snellville, Georgia, will remain open until 7:25 p.m. after opening late and experiencing issues with its voting machines.

Georgia Voters Face Hourslong Waits as State Scrambles to Accommodate Turnout

A line backs up into a parking garage outside a polling site in Atlanta. (David Goldman/AP Photo)

Poll workers in Georgia appear to have been unprepared for the waves of voters who turned out on Tuesday. Officials were scrambling to bring additional equipment to the polls and to field calls from frustrated voters forced to wait in line for hours across the state. Meanwhile, some who called county officials got busy signals or reached voicemail boxes for election offices that were full.

Houston Poll Worker Hurls Racist Remarks, Faces Criminal Charge

A poll worker in Houston, Texas, was relieved of her duties and escorted from the polling location after hurling racist comments and bumping into a voter. She now faces a criminal assault charge.

Chicago Election Officials Will Ask to Extend Poll Hours After Late Openings

Several Chicago poll sites didn’t open on time, so election officials are asking a judge to keep them open later. Also, some voters reported not receiving the second page of their ballots.

Glitch in Ohio County Incorrectly Marks Voters as Having Already Cast a Ballot

A computer glitch in Geauga County, Ohio, caused the voter registration check-in systems to incorrectly mark some voters as having already voted by absentee ballot. The county’s election director said no voters were turned away because of the mistake.

The Ballots of Madison County

Scanners in Madison County, Alabama, are having trouble reading ballots punched through “too hard” by voters and swollen by moisture, which could mean a hand count later. Neither issue is new to the county.

Breakdown in New York City

Despite Conflicting Messages, Cellphones Are Allowed in Nebraska Poll Booths

Voters in Nebraska are allowed to use cellphones inside polling booths, reported the Omaha World-Herald after a voter alerted Electionland that a poll worker told her she could not vote if she was using a cellphone.

Nothing Can Be Done About Pastor’s Sign Near Florida Polling Place, Authorities Say

The Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Office received dozens of complaints about a sign erected by a church’s pastor at a polling site that reads “Don’t vote for Democrats on Tuesday and sing ‘Oh how I love Jesus’ on Sunday.” The office says it can’t be removed because it is on private property outside the 100-foot perimeter where campaigning isn’t allowed.

Long Lines Test Voter Patience Across the Nation

Voters wait in line at PS 161 on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Brooklyn, New York. (Wong Maye-E/AP Photo)

Voters reported waits of an hour and longer on Election Day in areas ranging from the Gulf coasts of Texas and Florida to parts of Missouri and South Carolina, up to Chicago, rural central Pennsylvania and New York City. Polling places opening late, voting machine outages, understaffing and sheer volume caused some voters to abandon the lengthy lines before casting their ballots.

In the Houston area, voters waited over half an hour for polls to open as staff struggled to get voting machinery online. Voters who were late for their jobs left polling places in Brooklyn as high turnout and downed ballot scanners led to waits of up to two hours.

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