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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

See how Michigan political campaigns are targeting you on Facebook

It’s a big election year for Michigan in 2018. Citizens will vote for a new governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and all 148 seats in the state Senate and House. With so much at stake, you are already seeing political ads – lots of them.

And no area of political advertising is as dynamic, influential (and murky) as the targeted ads popping into your Facebook feed. It’s why Bridge is partnering with ProPublica on the Facebook Political Ad Collector tool created by ProPublica. The goal is to expose how political messaging is targeted to individuals and groups across Michigan.

We've all seen stories on how big a role Facebook advertisements played in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, as even founder Mark Zuckerberg belatedly acknowledged. Yet there remain limits to what we know about how ads are used to target individuals or narrow demographic groups in Michigan. Unlike radio or television, online political ads face little regulation.  

We need your help to crowdsource Facebook ads. Unless you are targeted, it’s almost impossible for the wider public to see them. With your participation, Bridge will be able to shine a light on and fact check claims candidates and special interest groups send through Facebook messaging.

If you want to join, download and install the “Facebook Political Ad Collector” Chrome extension (instructions) or the Firefox extension (instructions). These extensions do not collect any personal information, only information tied to the ads on Facebook. Like Bridge, Pulitzer-Prize winning ProPublica is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative newsite with a deep investment in fact-checking political campaigns.

How does the ad collector work?

The extension will take a snapshot of all ads that appear in your News Feed. When you click on the corresponding icon at the top of your browser bar a window will open showing you all the ads it has collected.

It will ask you to click on a button to label each as a “Political Ad” or “Normal Ad.” Normal ads will be discarded, political ads will be kept in a database that allows Bridge, the public, and other ProPublica partners to see how those ads were targeted.

ProPublica has developed machine-learning algorithms to determine whether a Facebook ad is likely to be political. Over time, it will be able to discern on its own what’s political and what isn’t in order to be entered into the database.

What is being collected?

There is no personally identifiable information being gathered by ProPublica’s extension. It will not learn which ads are shown to which user, or which user voted on what ad. The tool only gathers text links, images, and basic targeting information tied to the ad on Facebook. Bridge and ProPublica do not know who is submitting the ads or who has installed the extension.

The political ad information will be added to a public database, viewable through the extension itself, allowing the public to see all ads marked as political.

What will Bridge have access to?

Bridge has been provided access to a secure database maintained and owned exclusively by ProPublica. At no point will Bridge own ProPublica's database or the data within it. This data will be used exclusively for journalism purposes.

What do I get out of this?

Aside from helping Bridge discover and possibly report or Truth Squad political ads we otherwise may never see, you will be able to see ads others submit to the database by clicking on the extension’s icon in your toolbar along the top of your browser.

What if I do not want to participate anymore?

When you no longer want to be part of this project, uninstall the extension (here’s how on Chrome, Firefox). If the plugin is uninstalled or disabled, no data will be sent.

I don’t want to be targeted on Facebook

If you want to see all the data Facebook has on you, check out this USA Today article explaining out what kinds of information the social media giant has collected. The data is used for targeting by advertisers. It also explains how to remove specific information so you can’t be targeted, or how to delete the entirety of your data.

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