Election 2014  
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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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A pop-up 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."

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 Web sites," 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 ProPublica's 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 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.