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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.

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.

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.

Oops, We Forgot to Plug In the Voting Machine

Voters fill out their ballots in Leesburg, Virginia, on Tuesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Polls have barely opened on the East Coast, and voting machines — and people — are already causing a few foul-ups. Experts say that the errors are normal, and that none that have emerged so far should prevent voters from casting a ballot.

“There are literally hundreds of thousands of voting machines being set up, mostly by volunteer poll workers, and sometimes there are problems,” said David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “Most important thing is for the poll workers to contact their local election officials, who are most likely expecting some issues and will be ready to send help.”

How the Election Assistance Commission Came Not to Care So Much About Election Security

Commissioners Thomas Hicks, left, and Christy McCormick, second from left, during a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing on election security in Washington in July. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a rush of preparation for this year’s midterm elections, scores of state and local governments have been working to safeguard their election systems from being hacked or otherwise compromised.

At the same time, according to interviews with more than a dozen national, state and local election officials, the federal commission responsible for providing assistance to them has either been missing in action or working to thwart their efforts.

Early Voting Brought a Surge of Voters. What Will Election Day Bring?

People wait to cast their ballots during early voting at a community center on Oct. 25, 2018, in Potomac, Maryland. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

During three weeks of early voting, many of the problems Electionland has identified have been driven by higher-than-expected turnout. While experts say we won’t know if this means record-breaking turnout on Election Day, early voting in some states has already outpaced 2014, leaving election administrators struggling to keep up.

“There are two scenarios: One is that it’s been an unprecedented number of early voters, and the next is that it’s an equally historic Election Day,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies voter turnout. He said that while we won’t know which is correct until Election Day, “all signs” point to higher turnout on Tuesday. “We’ve never seen this level of engagement during a midterm election,” he said.

If that happens, experts say, voters are likely to see problems at the polls that are common when turnout exceeds expectations — long lines, malfunctioning machines and new voters confused by increasingly obscure election laws.

A Mysterious Facebook Group Is Using Bernie Sanders’ Image to Urge Democrats to Vote for the Green Party

A Facebook page for a group called “America Progress Now” is running ads online urging progressives to vote for Green Party candidates in seven competitive races in the Midwest.

“People of Color NEED Marcia Squier in the Senate to represent them,” one of the ads says, promoting a Green Party candidate in Michigan. “Americans don’t have control over our government anymore. We’ve lost it to greedy, corporate capitalists,” says another, calling for voters to support Ohio Green Party candidate Joe Manchik.

The page features ads with images of prominent progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Problem is, America Progress Now hasn’t registered with the Federal Election Commission, as all groups making independent political expenditures are required to do. Six of the Green Party candidates being promoted by America Progress Now say they have no affiliation with the Facebook page, and most say they’ve never heard of the group.

Our Electionland Project Is Tracking Voting Problems — and Getting Results

On Tuesday, more than 250 reporters from over 125 newsrooms will be working together toward one goal. We are all part of Electionland, a collaborative journalism project dedicated to identifying problems with access to the ballot.

Handwriting Disputes Cause Headaches for Some Absentee Voters

An election clerk in Sacramento inspects a mail-in ballot earlier this year. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)

Elisabeth Warner drove 12 hours the weekend before Election Day so her daughter could vote.

Her daughter, Emma Warner-Mesnard, 20, attends Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, but is registered to vote in her hometown, Columbus, Ohio — about a three-hour drive away. Warner-Mesnard mailed the Franklin County Board of Elections her request for an absentee ballot in mid-October, but officials there determined her signature on the application didn’t match what they had on file and placed her ballot on hold.

ICE, Dispelling Rumors, Says It Won’t Patrol Polling Places

Voters in Milwaukee in 2008. (Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers will not patrol polling locations on Election Day, an ICE spokeswoman said in response to social media rumors of potential voter intimidation from the federal law enforcement agency.

False claims that ICE is interfering at polling locations have cropped up intermittently over the past two years. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, for example, an image spread on Twitter appearing to show an immigration officer arresting someone in line to vote. The image was a hoax.

File-Sharing Software on State Election Servers Could Expose Them to Intruders

Residents of Elkhorn, Wisconsin submitting their ballot in the voting machine for the 2018 state primary election. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As recently as Monday, computer servers that powered Kentucky’s online voter registration and Wisconsin’s reporting of election results ran software that could potentially expose information to hackers or enable access to sensitive files without a password.

The insecure service run by Wisconsin could be reached from internet addresses based in Russia, which has become notorious for seeking to influence U.S. elections. Kentucky’s was accessible from other Eastern European countries.

Mail-In Ballot Postage Becomes a Surprising (and Unnecessary) Cause of Voter Anxiety

Mail-in ballots in bins to be processed at the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters, on Oct. 22, 2018, in Sacramento, California. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)

At the absentee ballot parties organized by assistant professor Allison Rank and her political science students at the State University of New York at Oswego, young voters can sip apple cider and eat donuts as they fill out their ballots. But the main draw is the free stamps.

“The stamp was actually the thing I was concerned about,” one freshman told Rank after she explained the process of completing and mailing in a ballot. According to Rank, only one store on the rural upstate campus sells postage. It has limited hours and only takes cash, which many students don’t carry.

It’s not only students who may be short a stamp this election. An increasing number of Americans vote by mail in an age when fewer of us have a reason to keep postage on hand. But it’s long been an open secret among election officials: Even though the return envelopes on many mail-in ballots say “postage required,” the U.S. Postal Service will deliver even without a stamp.

How Big Oil Dodges Facebook’s New Ad Transparency Rules

A Facebook ad in October urged political conservatives to support the Trump administration’s rollback of fuel emission standards, which it hailed as “our president’s car freedom agenda” and “plan for safer, cheaper cars that WE get to choose.” The ad came from a Facebook page called Energy4US, and it included a disclaimer, required by Facebook, saying it was “paid for by Energy4US.”

Yet there is no such company or organization as Energy4US, nor is it any entity’s registered trade name, according to a search of LexisNexis and other databases. Instead, Energy4US — which Facebook says spent nearly $20,000 on the ads — appears to be a front for American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade association whose members include ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell. In 2015, when the Energy4US website was launched, it was registered to AFPM, which is also first on a list of “coalition members” on the site. AFPM, which did not respond to calls and emails for this article, has spent more than $2.5 million this year lobbying the federal government, including advocating for less stringent emission standards.

Groups Mask Partisan Attacks Behind Neutral-Sounding Names in Facebook Ads

Some political groups on the left are borrowing a tactic from disinformation campaigns, placing ads on Facebook that pretend to be impartial information or unbiased news sources, when in fact the ads spread misleading facts about candidates.

¿Has experimentado algún problema al votar? Queremos escuchar tu historia

Read in English.

Las elecciones están a la vuelta de la esquina. Si estás planeando votar, ya sea el 6 de noviembre o durante el período de votación anticipada en tu estado, queremos que nos ayudes a encontrar problemas en el proceso de votación.

Let Us Know About Voting Problems During the Midterm Elections

Leer en español.

We’re on the lookout for any problems that prevent people from voting — such as long lines, registration problems, purged voter rolls, broken machines, voter intimidation and changed voting locations. To let us know how your voting experience went or to tell us if you encountered anything that stopped you or others from casting a ballot, here’s how to sign up.

Election Experts: We Need You

Electionland is gearing up for the midterms, and we’re looking for experts in election administration and election law to be part of an expert database. We’d love to have you participate. Our goal is to ground real-time coverage of elections in fact and context — you could be a huge part of helping us achieve it.

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About Electionland

Electionland is a coalition of newsrooms around the country that are covering problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2018 elections.

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