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ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy: Political Advertising

It’s hard to track, hard to regulate, but essential to understand.

This article is part of The User’s Guide to Democracy, an eight-part series designed to get you up to speed on how Congress works (or doesn’t), how elections are run, and what you can do to become a more informed, more engaged, more confident voter. Sign up here to get a personalized version of these guides.

Who’s ready to become a smarter, more engaged, more empowered voter?!

Hopefully your answer is …

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be your guide through the midterm election landscape. We’re going to talk about political campaigns, who your representatives in Congress are (and what it is they do), the candidates who want to represent you in Congress and the sometimes convoluted business of voting.

National politics can seem distant or complicated — but I promise, it’s pretty easy to follow once you know the basics.

Glenn Alan

I’m Cynthia, by the way, director of marketing at ProPublica. I’m also a culture writer, a Philly native and a former political reporter. But until I started working on this project, honestly, I was a little rusty on these subjects myself. That’s why I’m writing to you, instead of our investigative reporters and data nerds. Because I believe you shouldn’t have to be an expert to participate in our democracy. I learned this stuff — you can, too.

To help us both out, I tapped ProPublica’s reporters who cover election security, voting access, political ads, online misinformation, campaign cash flows and Congress; asked them a ton of questions; and stripped down what I learned to the most essential parts. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share these lessons with you, one step at a time.

You can follow along here, on our website, or you can sign up to receive this info by email. One reason you might want to get the emails: I worked with our data team to pick out specific information that is relevant to each voter who signs up. In each email, we’ll give you a closer look at your specific state or representatives. (Plus, we’ll send you reminders about Election Day and give you tips on working with your newly elected representatives after the big day!)


No matter which option you choose, each lesson should take less than 10 minutes to get through, and at the end of each week, I’m going to give you some homework to do until next time: things you can do to be better informed and more engaged.

To kick things off, let’s talk about something you’re probably seeing more of these days: online political ads.

As we get closer to the midterm elections, campaigns are going head-to-head with daily advertising. This form of campaigning not only helps candidates share their views with the public; it can have a big influence on public polling and upgrade their chances in the race.

We’re used to the typical, cheesy TV ads — from “I Like Ike” in the 1950s, to Hillary Clinton’s foreboding 2008 spot, “3 AM.”

But political advertising, like the ads you probably scroll past in your Facebook feed, has changed drastically over the past couple of decades. Unlike TV ads, which reach voters with undifferentiated mass messages, when it comes to online political ads, campaigns actually know a TON about you. They can target you based on your age, sex, income, where you live — even if you’re a Beyoncé fan. And they can tailor their messaging to how they think you, specifically, will respond.

How do they do that?

Political advertising online is more like Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist than a traditional television ad: It uses lots of information about what you’ve done in the past to match you to the ads that you see today. Political campaigns and advocacy groups don’t have this data themselves; they enlist the help of so-called data brokers.

Data brokers gather public information about mortgages, car ownership and marital status, as well as consumer data like your income, education and which magazines you subscribe to. With this information, they make informed guesses about your political beliefs and assign you to a profile, which they sell to political advertisers. Campaigns then show you ads they think will persuade someone like you to vote for their candidate (or against the other one).

These ads appear lots of places online. You see them on search engines like Google, social networks like Twitter and, thanks to the services of online advertising networks that connect advertisers to digital promo opportunities, nearly any website that hosts ad space.

But Facebook (chef kiss) is the crème de la crème of political ad targeting. Everything you do on Facebook is being tracked — by Facebook.

Every time you …

  • Like a post

  • Tag a photo

  • Update your favorite movies

  • Post a comment

  • Visit a page with a FB share button

  • Use Instagram or WhatsApp (both owned by Facebook)

… Facebook uses all this data to guess your political leanings and interests, offering you up to candidates who want to target super specific groups of people.

So, the problem is …

Online ads are are hard to track. They appear on some people’s screens (sometimes for just a few hours), while never being shown to others. There’s also no way to monitor if political campaigns are changing their messaging based on the groups they are targeting — or whether they’re sending out ads that are misleading, contradictory or false.

The Federal Election Commission has strict rules about political ads broadcast on television and radio, but those rules haven’t kept up with the new power of online targeting. They tried recently — and failed.

Basically, in online political advertising, nearly anything goes.

Perhaps you’ll recall:

We don’t know the full impact of this, but with no accountability, they open the door for disinformation.

Homework: Find Out How You’re Being Targeted.

To learn more about how candidates target you on Facebook, check out how the site has categorized you. Does Facebook think you’re very liberal, very conservative or somewhere in between?

  • Go to on your browser. (You may have to log in to Facebook first.)

  • That will bring you to a page with your ad preferences. Under the “Your Information” header, click the “Your categories” tab.

  • Then look for a box titled “US Politics.” In parentheses, it will show what Facebook says it knows about you (and how it sells you to advertisers), with a description like liberal, moderate or conservative. Does it match up with how you actually identify yourself?

  • See what else Facebook thinks you’re interested in on this page under the “Your interests” section at the top (it has a heart icon). Political advertisers sometimes use this information to reach potential voters, too.

  • In your newsfeed, click the dots at the top right corner of any Facebook ad and select “Why am I seeing this?” It will give a brief explanation about some of the choices the advertiser made in showing it to you. It may be because of the state you live in, or your age, or because Facebook thinks you’re interested in a specific political party.

Homework: See the Ads You’re NOT Seeing.

Because Facebook thinks they have you all figured out, it’s important to remember there are a lot of ads that they won’t ever show you. To learn more about what other people see, there are a few steps you can take.

  1. Visit the Facebook Political Ad Collector, our searchable database designed to create more transparency in targeted online ads. It lets you step into someone else’s shoes and see the Facebook ads that they see.

  1. Browse Google’s library of political ads. This summer Google published a searchable archive of political ads that have run on the platform, searchable by candidate or advertiser.

Extra Credit

While ProPublica has collected almost 53,000 political ads from more than 11,000 users for our Facebook Political Ad Collector, we want to monitor more. If you use Chrome or Firefox, you can help by downloading our browser extension, which lets us collect the ads you see.

So far the add-on has found political ads that were actually scams and malware, ads that ignored FEC rules by failing to disclose who paid for and approved them, and Ohio’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray’s made-up news pages.

Important privacy note: The extension doesn’t collect any personal information about its users; we just collect the ads you see, automatically. We don’t see any of your or your friends’ posts. Learn more here.

Additional Reading

You can also learn more about the ways you’re targeted online with these articles:

That’s all for this time. Thanks for rocking with me, and I’ll see you next week!

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Portrait of Cynthia Gordy Giwa

Cynthia Gordy Giwa

Cynthia Gordy Giwa is ProPublica’s marketing director.

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