Journalism in the Public Interest

Dark Money Political Groups Target Voters Based on Their Internet Habits 

Dark money groups are using sophisticated online targeting tactics. Voters may never know they’re being targeted.


A targeted Americans for Prosperity ad.

Lauren Berns was browsing Talking Points Memo when he saw an ad with President Obama’s face. “Stop the Reckless Spending,” the ad read, and in smaller print, Paid for by Crossroads GPS.    Berns was surprised. Why was Crossroads GPS, a group that powerful Republican strategist Karl Rove helped found,advertising on a liberal-leaning political website? Looking closely at the ad, Berns saw a small blue triangle in the upper-left hand corner. He knew what that meant: this ad wasn’t being shown to every person who read that page. It was being targeted to him in particular. Tax-exempt groups like Crossroads GPS have become among the biggest players in this year’s election.  They’re often called “dark money” groups, because they can raise accept unlimited amounts of money and never have to disclose their donors.

These groups are spending massively on television spots attacking different candidates. These ads are often highly publicized and get plenty of media attention.

But these same dark money groups are also quietly expanding their online advertising efforts, using sophisticated targeting tactics to send their ads to specific kinds of people.

Who they’re targeting, and what data they’re using, is secret.

Online advertising companies have amassed vast quantities of information on what individual people read, watch, and do on the Internet. They collect this data using small files called cookies, which allows them to track Internet users as they move from site to site.

These anonymous profiles of information are used to customize advertisements—like sending casino ads to someone who just bought a plane ticket to Vegas. 

But these profiles are also increasingly used by political groups, which can decide which people to target with a message—and which people to avoid—based on the kinds of articles they read and the kinds of sites they visit.

Many Internet users who see these ads may not be aware they’re being targeted.  

As we’ve detailed, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using advanced tracking and targeting tactics. Working with our readers, we found two examples of dark money groups using this kind of targeting, as well: one ad from Crossroads GPS and one ad from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit linked to the politically influential Koch brothers.

How many of these ads are dark money groups sending out? It’s hard to say, because it’s not easy to track exactly how much Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, and similar groups are spending on different kinds of advertising.  

But these politically influential organizations are moving more of their efforts online.

While Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said he couldn’t get into the specifics of their budget, “Crossroads will certainly spend more in the online space in 2012 than it did in 2010,” he said.

Americans for Prosperity did not return multiple requests for comment.

Even when Internet users are sophisticated enough to spot a targeted ad, as Lauren Berns did, it is almost impossible for them to find out why a certain organization is targeting them—or what data about them is being used.

Berns, for instance, is a registered independent from St. Petersburg, Florida—exactly the kind of voter whose opinion campaigns and political groups are trying to sway before November.  He’s a self-described “news junkie,” who reads both liberal and conservative news sites and posts articles to Facebook two to ten times a day. But it wasn’t clear what part of his Internet behavior ad triggered the Crossroads ad—or whether information about his offline life was part of the targeting formula. Had he been shown the Crossroads ad because he had visited Mitt Romney’s site? Because he regularly reads the conservative sites of The Daily Caller and The Weekly Standard? Because he lives in a swing state? Did Berns fit the profile of a potential Crossroads supporter because he’s a 44-year-old who travels regularly? Or because he shares things with his friends, thus making him a potential “social influencer?”

A popup message accompanying the ad offered information about the targeting. But it only explained, “We select ads we believe might be more relevant to your interests.”

The popup in the ad Berns received.

The popup in the ad Berns received.

When we sent Crossroad’s Collegio a copy of the ad, he said he could not explain exactly how the ad had been targeted, saying, “it’s a matter of strategy that we would hold close to our chests.”

But he did offer one potential targeting factor. “We are looking for viewers who are more likely to engage their lawmakers in an issue advocacy campaign, and those are generally viewers who visit news and current affairs websites,” Collegio said. If Crossroads GPS was looking to target news junkies, then Berns was the kind of person they were trying to reach—although, of course, that didn’t necessarily mean he was sympathetic to the ad’s message. Berns regularly reads conservative sites and says he is skeptical of both parties, but on policy issues, he says, he lines up more closely with the Democrats.

Because Crossroads wouldn’t disclose their targeting strategy, we can’t know how many other factors may have been involved. Collegio would not say whether the online ad was only sent to viewers in certain states.

Television ads from dark money groups often get significant media scrutiny.  When Crossroads GPS launched a television ad in early June attacking President Obama’s “reckless spending,” the group’s $7 million ad buy made headlines in papers across the country. The Washington Post fact-checked the ad’s claims, and concluded that the ad contained both exaggerations and omissions.

What didn’t get mentioned, by newspapers or by Crossroads’ own press release, was that an online version of the same ad—the ad Berns saw—would appear on the computer screens of select individuals, based on their Internet habits. Collegio said it was “likely an oversight” that the Crossroads press release didn’t include a description of the online part of the ad campaign.   But, he noted, “When we announce online buys, the media rarely report on it.”

By their nature, targeted online ads are harder for news organizations to track, since they are only shown to some users, and will never appear to others.

This makes targeted ads much less transparent than TV ads, and makes it harder to tell if politicians or political groups are using targeting to pander to certain groups of voters, or whether they’re sending out ads that are misleading, hypocritical, or just plain false.

As part of our campaign coverage, we’ve been asking readers to send in screenshots of any targeted political ads they see. Berns was one of the first to send in screenshots of a targeted ad.

Another targeted dark money ad came from a woman in Wisconsin, who asked that her name not be used. She sent screenshots of a targeted ad from the Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity attacking Wisconsin Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, who is now running for Senate.

The Americans for Prosperity ad on the Washington Post's site.

The ad, which reads, “Tell Tammy Baldwin: Wisconsin can’t afford Washington’s wasteful spending!” asks viewers to “Click here to sign the petition.” The ad appeared on multiple sites the woman visited, including in a prominent place on the home page of the Washington Post. While Americans for Prosperity did not return requests for comment, a Washington Post spokeswoman said a broader Americans for Prosperity ad campaign had been taken down because it had not been approved by the Post’s advertising team. While many critics of targeting have been concerned that political groups might use targeting to send out controversial ads without attracting attention, that wasn’t the case with the two ads our readers spotted. The targeted ads from both groups sent the same message as their spots shown on TV.

Recent surveys suggest many American aren’t enthusiastic about political targeting online.

A survey of 1,503 adult Internet users released this week by the Annenberg School for Communications found that 86 percent of the respondents did not want “web sites to show you political ads tailored to your interests.” Most respondents also said they want to know what the campaigns know about them.

In general, Berns said, “I’m fine with targeted advertising. If I’m going to see ads on the Internet, I’d rather they be something I’m interested in.” But, he said, he draws the line at politics.

“I'd much prefer a world where candidates tried to equally hard to reach everyone, present their policies rationally, and let the chips fall where they may,” he wrote in an e-mail. 

“Targeting by political viewpoint is ‘creepy,’” he wrote. “A little too close to propaganda techniques for my comfort.”

Have you seen a targeted political ad?  

Help us find out how politicians are targeting you online.  

  1. If you spot a small blue triangle icon on any online political ad, or the words "Ad Choices," take a screenshot of the ad.
  2. Then click on the blue triangle or the words “Ad Choices” to find out which company showed you the ad. Take a screenshot of that, too.
  3. E-mail the screenshots to us at Please include the full URL of the page where you saw the ad.

If the ad asks you to “learn more,” visit a website, donate, or sign a petition, please send us a screenshot of that site or petition, as well. (The page where the ad sends you may also be targeted to what advertisers know about you.)

Not sure how to take a screenshot? Here are the instructions if you're using a PCusing a Mac, or using a smartphone.

You can also check out our "Message Machine" project, which analyzes how campaigns are targeting voters with different e-mail messages.

I’m very glad that there’s at least one institution is watching this mess.

There’s a simple solution for us.  When you walk into a voting booth, no matter which candidate you think you support, ask yourself if the country would be better off led by someone who engages in outright propaganda and arranges the propaganda in hopes that you won’t know that half the recipients are being told exactly the opposite of what you heard.

It was bad enough when their entire campaigns were “I’m not my opponent, who you are obligated to hate, as loyal party supporters.”  But these people are now spending hundreds of billions of dollars to tell you how they’ll cut spending and are using secret dossiers on you to wage a propaganda war allegedly for your freedom.  If they’re in office, do you expect them to change tactics that were so successful?  If they’re using the tactics of oppression, How could they possibly share your values?

We, as a country, need to stop voting for these people.  Let them win, and they’ll be back again with a new “technique” (blackmail, perhaps?).  Keep them out of Washington by convincing people to vote for any small-party candidate, and they’ll get the point that spending piles of corporate money on half-assed brainwashing schemes is bad.

Dark money?  Obviously only if it comes from Republicans.  Democratic, left leaning PACs supported by Soros, Saban, and other billionaire backers of the Democrats don’t count.

Pro publica, as usual, your bias is showing.

audrey fisher

July 26, 2012, 3:08 p.m.

smgilb:  just for fun, how about adding to the database, rather than recycling names?  In a LOL moment last week, I did receive a “hair on fire” story re:  Sorus - so, first I did a google search - and saw ZIP, so then I responded back to the email and more than a week later - crickets.
    I used the information discussed here on one of the “new / dark” sites that has a U-tube out and strange or hilarious, it is no longer available. 
    Does that mean the system works?  Probably not, but increasing transparency should be a good thing, regardless of political ideology -

    As a reminder:  The GOP in Senate who would not allow the Disclose Act to move forward.  HMMMM!

Thank you Lois for yet another example of exceptional journalism. If I may, I would like to help any reader who comes across this article on taking steps to prevent themselves from being so unethically tracked.

ONE way to prevent these organizations from tracking you is to DELETE all cookies after browsing such websites. A Firefox add on called” Eraser” will erase ALL and even the hard to find cookies that get surreptitiously put on your computers by these tracking websites.. It’s a simple add on and once installed you can eraser ALL tracking cookies with the click of a button.

If you are pretty computer savvy and want to select what cookies to delete or keep, then use the Cookie Culler add on.

If dark money isn’t going to change their unethical targeting strategies then we as a user can at the very least make it much MUCH harder for them to track.
You can always also instal the AdBlock add on that blocks all ad related content on webpages. I hope this helps most of you people out there.

Thank you No Name. This gross invasion of our privacy is atrocious to say the least. They know everything about is, where we are and where we’ve been. Dark money or not, it’ all sinister to me!

Buying Our Future

July 26, 2012, 5:26 p.m.

Karl Rove is manipulating every possible loophole in the campaign finance system.  He attended Romney’s fundraiser - even spoke at the event - as his Crossroads GPS bombards the airwaves with anti-Obama ads.  Here’s an article documenting the Romney fundraiser, which in addition to Rove, had the head of Romney’s own Restore Our Future trolling the lobby for donations:

Of Course, they cannot “coordinate” with their Super PACs, right?  Rove and the others laugh at that…..

It should be no surprise that target advertising is done since Google and others sell information on users searching patterns. There was more than one CSPAN shown event on the use and the value of such data to the two political party’s.

Dark money , light money, what difference does it make, the real winner here is the television and internet media. How many millions are spent by both parties on negative advertising, another question, do you ever get the feeling these guy’s underestimate our intelligence ?
Evidently not, or they wouldn’t be spending that kind of money, they realize the average american reacts by emotion, not common sense.
Sad but true, how many people do you know really look at the facts, if they did they would realize a change is needed in the white house.
Is Romney the right guy? Has Obama earned another 4 years ?
I have my answer, what’s yours ?

Nick Petite, Your post was right on. Yes Ir do believe they underestimate our intelligence. Funny thing is I believe most people have made up their minds, intelligent ones any way. No Obama will not see another term.

targeting us? who the hell do they think they are? We are not morons such as they who would even give one nanosecond to their crap. They don’t ever influence me with all the corruption, lies in this world, they are just part of it. I’ve learned to ignore them, If I do click on it, I give them hell about it, bad mouth them and make them wish they never got on my page.  Losers. I refuse to engage in their marketing crap. All it does is make me MAD.  I deliberately will badmouth them and not buy a damn thing from them. such as OATS, which are not GMO’d yet along with rice, wheat, corn and soy and alfalfa and maybe tomatoes, but if the food is non GMO and they use it mixed with GMO HFCS, not buying it. So there,  go market yourself, all that psycho babble is just that, you’re inadequate with pseudo EGO’s and full of your selves. go drone yourself.

Great article!
Thanks to ProPublica and the readers again.
The readers here will be surprised to know a fact that I do not receive email from some of my friends -especially, if they are beautiful ladies.
I have some ‘yet unaddressed and inappropriately addressed legal issues before the law courts (where even a judge became envious of my good luck with a (some) glamorous, young lady (-ies) and intentionally ignored digitally captured evidences and felt free to delay honest administration of justice for at least a half or even more probably upto a decade)’ and ongoing cases for the last five years, as you can note in my “78 pages Crown document” @
Digital evidences are indestructible and it’s a matter of time when, the secret acts of invisible personnel (who act like thieves and liars) and / or the roles of officially approved, faceless liars in the current British- style North-American systemic manipulation of facts and the truth, will go public.

As usualy, the fix for this junk is easy: get Firefox if you don’t already have it, then get the AdBlock, NoScript, and DNT+ (Do Not Track Plus) plugins.  Set your browser to flush all cookies when you close as well as flushing your browsing history.  Turn off “popups.”

I’ve never seen one of these targeted ads and probably never will.

Steve: Ditto. And even with the safeguards in place, if I’ve ever have been targeted, I haven’t “seen” it since I’ve developed enough sorting skills to block out anything that distracts from the content I’m focusing on.

But it sounds like an interesting exercise. I’ll make an effort to use my sorting skills to include blue triangles, just enough to find out if they’ve cracked through the armor - and if they have, report back. :)

upset at targeted ads? why not block them? stop using your real name, email, ...

The Supreme Court has opined that the answer to bad speech is more speech. But if the speech is not observable, it cannot be answered.  It wouldn’t be that unreasonable to require that political expenditures simply not be targeted at all.  I could see two reasons for that: First, it would be auditable, and therefore rebuttable, something that is lost if the speech is targeted to some who might not include those capable of a correction.  Second, it would give people access to other information than their profile might suggest.  Targeted information means not only that you’re getting info of a kind someone thinks you’ll like, but information that is of a kind someone thinks you don’t like may be withheld from you.  That’s not fair to the recipient.

Kent, that’s exactly it.  The problem, here, is that you could conceivably be getting an ISOLATED message from the campaign, a pack of lies ideally suited to you, distinct from what anybody else will ever see.  In business, they do this with price and call it market segmentation (package the same product in a high-class and low-class way, to have two different price points, for example).

“Voter segmentation” is just about the worst thing I can imagine.

Nick, I disagree that they’re underestimating intelligence, because they’re not targeting intelligence.  They’re targeting herd mentality.

Consider that this is a story about groups with hidden, shady backgrounds manipulating the population to win an election by tracking and dividing people—tactics that should be unconscionable to anybody.  The audience here is, mostly by definition, better-educated and more engaged than the average citizen, else why would you visit independent investigative journalism?  For lack of a better way of putting it, we’re smarter than the average bear.

And what are the reactions to this story?  A lot of people want to pretend it’s not happening—just block the ad, and there’s apparently nothing offensive about politicians trying to sway an election in an untrackable way and who cares about the other people being tracked and manipulated.  Other people use it as an excuse to support one lcandidate over another for exactly the same tactics (and platform, I might add), wondering why Candidate X is mentioned in this article, but not Candidate Y, who has his own article that apparently didn’t get read (and had the opposite comment, by the way).

It’s not about intelligence at all, because they don’t care about intelligence, as long as they can manipulate enough of us.  That, at its core, is what this story is going to be about.  Future generations are going to ask what sort of people are OK with customized propaganda, as long as it’s from the candidate they support and why so few people took a stand against it.  If you want to look like your intelligence is being underestimated, you might want an answer for them…

” Tax-exempt groups like Crossroads GPS have become among the biggest players in this year’s election.”

Where is the IRS???

In previous posts I expressed my opinion about the millions of dollars spent on negative campaign advertising and underestimating our intellegence, as stated before most Americans react on emotion and they know it—someone sent me a video of—African Americans for Obama—he’s pitching the blacks to vote for him, reminding them of slavery, showing clips of Martin Luther King marches, etc;—racist advertising—
I don’t remember any previous candidate using—a race card—for votes
do you ?

Nick, yes, I do remember previous candidate (sic) ‘using a race card’ for votes.  Example: Romney claiming he’ll restore our special relationship with UK using his superior understanding of shared Anglo-Saxon culture.

Be honest now, do you really have even the remotest notion of why that’s ‘using a race card’?  Not that I’m trying to ‘underestimate’ your intelligence, or anything like that…

Dick,—African Americans for Obama—you feel that is not a racist attidute ?? What about—Whites for Romney—you think that might have some racial overtones ? Be honest now Dick—-

How about—-screwballs for Biden—-LOL

Nirk, you asked the question, I gave you an answer.  (I suspect you’d be welcome in that Biden group…)

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