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Dark Money Political Groups Target Voters Based on Their Internet Habits

Seeing the same political ads on every Web site you visit? Maybe the ad-makers know more about you than you'd ever guess.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Sergej Khakimullin

 

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 Web site? 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 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 ProPublica has 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?"