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Tracking political ads online

October 9, 2018

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Spending is increasing on online political ads, especially on Facebook’s platform ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. (Photo by Pixabay user geralt)

Political spending has skyrocketed since the Supreme Court allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money in advertisements. The extent of the Court’s decision has seeped through the porous holes of Facebook and other social media giants.

Facebook has come under fire over its handling of online ads that ran on its platform all throughout the 2016 presidential elections. Public criticism and revelations about leaked personal data from a third party led to congressional hearings forcing top executives from Facebook to reflect on its lack of oversight.

Money plays a big influence in local elections, which is why following the money has never been more crucial in today’s digital age.

Here are some tips to help you as a reporter covering elections and political spending.

Facebook is one of the biggest services that allows candidates and political action committees to place ads on its platform.

Back in April, the social media behemoth announced it would increase transparency for political ads on its site by allowing its users to check how much a group had spent on the ad the user was seeing. While this feature does not give an accurate amount, it is a helpful tool for reporters tracking political expenditures and who is behind those ads.

Dollars for online political ads are expected to near the level of spending on television, according to a report by Borrell Associates, a research firm tracking political expenditures.

Over $8.5 billion will be spent on this year’s midterm elections, the group predicts. The report also states interest groups at the local and state level will make up more than half of the money being spent on broadcast and online ads.

But the world of online political ads is still left unregulated, which can be hard for reporters trying to track exact numbers on political expenditures. The best option for tracking political ads still remains in broadcast because the Federal Communication Commission requires stations to collect the name of the buyer and the amount of the purchase.

ProPublica uncovered an Ohio candidate who created Facebook pages running news articles that presented his opponent negatively. The investigative news organization first discovered this before Facebook’s ad disclosure policy kicked in. They were able to find this by aggregating the ads people were seeing on their Facebook accounts.

While ProPublica used a comprehensive tool to get this story, you as a reporter can talk to the public about what ads they are seeing on their feed. Observation is also key when you are scrolling down your own personal feed.

Spending flocks online ads

The sophistication of online advertisement has impressed candidates and groups alike for their ability to target specific groups.  

In order to make these messages stick online, campaigns have upped their strategy to put out polarizing Facebook ads as the Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Democrats are seizing on this moment before the 2018 midterm elections. Among the pack, Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Senate Democratic candidate facing incumbent Ted Cruz this fall, has spent $4.7 million so far on digital advertisements, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The battle for this Senate seat is hotly contested as polls show the hopeful Democratic candidate inching close to Sen. Cruz.

The Texas Senate race isn’t the only election where online political spending is notable. There are hundreds more in local state elections that reporters can uncover, especially which candidates are spending the most on online ads.


  • Abdel Jimenez

    A journalist with more than four years of experience covering business, immigration, Latino communities and sustainability. At the Chicago Tribune, he reported on a statewide unemployment fraud issue affecting nearly a million Illinois residents, and...

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