BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If RT is an influencer, it's fish food compared to Facebook. The social media giant has boasted of its power to boost turnout for national elections. And, as we've learned in recent weeks, it's enabled foreign propagandists to organize pro-Trump rallies in Florida or put ads into the newsfeeds of swing state voters.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Another statement coming out from Facebook today. It said that they sold about $100,000 of advertisements to what they call “inauthentic accounts operated out of Russia during the campaign.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It’s also believed the Russians may have had specific data about who to target with those ads, gleaned perhaps from election data.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, the Wall Street Journal reporting that other news. Facebook has given the Mueller team even more information about these Russian accounts that bought campaign ads on Facebook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and congressional investigators may have information about these ads now, but we don't and maybe never will because these were web ads, not subject to campaign finance rules that apply to TV and radio. Neither Facebook nor its Russian advertisers are required to disclose anything. And because Facebook's algorithm can target ads based on interest, Joe, the snowmobile fan, may see an ad that Joe, the accountability fan, or Joe, the journalist, will not. Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica and is leading an initiative which she hopes will empower the public to monitor political ads on Facebook. Julia, welcome to the show.
JULIA ANGWIN: It’s great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you wrote in a recent piece for ProPublica, the nature of online advertising is such that ads appear on screens for just a few hours and are limited to the audience that the advertiser has chosen. So if an advertiser micro-targets a group, such as 40-year-old female motorcyclists in Nashville, Tennessee with a misleading ad, it's unlikely that anyone other than the bikers will see those ads, right?
JULIA ANGWIN: Online advertising is our first sort of entrance into this very ephemeral and very micro-targeted world of political ads where it's very possible, like this case of the Russian ads, that no one could have seen them except the people to whom they were targeted. So last year, actually, I did a crowdsourcing project where we asked people to share with us the Facebook ad categories they were assigned to, and we got a list of 50,000 ad categories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that ranges from cat lovers to people who are lactose intolerant?
JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah. I mean, there were some crazy ad categories that we saw. One was people who like to pretend that they're texting in awkward situations. [LAUGHS]
Facebook knows a lot about people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One point of speculation is that the Russian trolls must have had some insider info. Is that true or does Facebook just do the work for them?
JULIA ANGWIN: You know, you don’t really need a lot of insider info to target ads on Facebook. There's a little drop-down menu and you go in and you’re like, do you want men or women and what age, and then you type in the interest you want, and either an ad category will show up or it won't. It basically depends on whether they have enough people in that category.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JULIA ANGWIN: So you can go sort of looking for whatever your dream group is and you may well find it; you’re most likely gonna find it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So 100,000 bucks. In American politics, that sounds like peanuts, right?
JULIA ANGWIN: It is peanuts for politics but it's a lot of money on Facebook. People do ad buys for a dollar, for five dollars because if you're reaching just a very small group of people who, like a certain pet on a certain ZIP Code, which you can do on Facebook, there might not be that many of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, when Congress passed McCain-Feingold back in 2002, it didn’t, it probably couldn't, foresee the political problem that the internet would pose.
JULIA ANGWIN: That’s right. The McCain-Feingold law basically says that if you advertise in the last 30 to 60 days before an election on an issue, basically anything that doesn't just say, vote for my candidate, that you have to disclose that ad by you have to say, I am the political action committee for this person or that person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. There's no disclosure on spending and, as you describe, there's no disclosure on content either, because if it comes by for 30 seconds and makes an impression on some highly-targeted demographic and then vanishes, leaving no record behind, what’s an accountability person like yourself to do?
JULIA ANGWIN: Right. I honestly have very rarely seen a situation where there’s so much public interest and so little accountability.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you launched this project, slyly called Political Ad Collector, which I guess we can shorten to PAC.
JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, we wanted to figure out a way to capture these ads before they disappear. The only way we could think of was to build sort of a crowdsourcing tool. People install a little bit of software in their web browser and when they're on Facebook it just pulls the ads out and asks, are these political or not? And then, if they’re political, we send them to this public repository that everyone could see. So we finally have a public database of what are the political ads are being shown on Facebook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, this is fascinating. The reason why this is a crowdsourcing project is because a machine can't recognize a political ad, so you have to teach that machine.
JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, I mean, look, I would like to say we have done a very nice job of teaching our machine. Just based on software programming that my colleague Jeff Larson wrote, it is 80 or 90 percent accurate, but we need humans to get us to that top 100 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
JULIA ANGWIN: And so, we asked people to confirm whether or not it's truly a political ad. Now that we’ve launched it, we realize that already there's quite a bit of political advertising in the US.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are you seeing?
JULIA ANGWIN: I’ll just read you a couple of the headlines of the ads we’ve seen so far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JULIA ANGWIN: “Ending DACA means mass deportation.” Period. “Tax march. Some in Congress are trying to pass a tax bill that would give billions more to the richest. We can’t let them get away with it.” Right? So these are political that are running on issues that are up right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I notice those are both liberal ads, and I wonder if that's generally what you're getting because the people you're reaching out to are predominantly liberal.
JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah, we’ve thought about that issue. I think everyone has an interest in having this tool work for everybody, but we have to get our message out to conservatives who might not be reading ProPublica, and we haven’t figured out our strategy, to be honest. If any one of your listeners has an uncle [LAUGHS] that they want to share it with, but we are probably going to try to find -- maybe we'll have a nontraditional partnership, like, we could reach out with Breitbart or something. I mean, we have all sorts of partnerships at ProPublica, and it would be kind of fun for me to do our first [LAUGHING] right-wing partnership.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ultimately, what do you want your project to do?
JULIA ANGWIN: Well, you know it’s interesting. I mean, people always frame this around Russia but I actually think that the issue is much larger than that. The truth is we haven't had an election where you could automate your lying to these crowds and never have anyone see or know about it. The last time that an election happened where one candidate told different things to different parts of the country was William Henry Harrison, and he actually was the reason we set up the traveling national press corps for presidential elections, because he would say one thing in the North and another thing in the South, and no one knew, and so then the press realized, we have to follow this guy around. Well, Facebook has basically this ability to do exactly what he did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Julia, thank you very much.
JULIA ANGWIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Julia Angwin is a senior reporter at ProPublica. If you want to enlist in their effort by downloading the Political Ad Collector, just go to propublica.org/PAC.