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Tech Giants Now Share Details on Political Ads. What Does That Mean For You?

Tech Giants Now Share Details on Political Ads. What Does That Mean For You?

We tried out new tools from Facebook, Google and Twitter that let you look up campaign ads. Here’s what the databases can — and cannot — do.

“Dark ads.” That is the catchall term researchers use to describe online political messages that keep people in the dark about why they were targeted with the ads, who paid for them or how much was spent.

Thousands of dark ads ran on Facebook around the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the British referendum on leaving the European Union. Some ads delivered divisive messages aimed at specific audiences. Some ads circulated misinformation — or told people not to vote.

But in recent months, in response to criticism from the public and lawmakers, Facebook, Google and Twitter have tried to shed more light on political ads. Each company began requiring political campaigns to label their ads more clearly. They also introduced searchable databases where users can look up political ads running on the companies’ services. Want to know details about Facebook ads tied to Representative Marsha Blackburn’s tight race to represent Tennessee in the Senate? They are there to see in the archives.

Some lawmakers may push for even more disclosure on Wednesday, when executives from Facebook and Twitter are expected to appear at a Senate hearing about trying to thwart foreign meddling in this year’s election. Here’s a quick primer on the archives, how you can use them and their limits.

What do the ad archives show?

Each company’s political ad archive works a bit differently and contains varying levels of detail about each ad. But they all allow users to look up current campaign ads for elected federal offices in the United States. And they all show the name of a political ad’s sponsor, how much was spent on the ads, when they were shown and how many times.

The Facebook archive contains political ads that have run on the company’s social network or Instagram. It includes ads for political candidates as well as for political issues like climate and education, and is searchable by a candidate’s name or by issue. The results show demographic data on the audience that saw the ad. You can find all of the political ads from a particular sponsor, too.

The database includes information like this about an ad for Representative Blackburn:


The Google archive includes political ads that have run on its platform for candidates or incumbents in elections for federal offices. You can find them by looking up candidates’ names or the group that paid for their ads. You can also search for ads by date, amount spent, the number of times they were shown and whether they were video or text ads.

Google’s database shows the demographic categories a campaign used to target an ad. If you click on the sponsor’s name, you can see data on the total number of ads the sponsor bought through Google’s ad services and the total amount the sponsor spent.

It has information like this about ads from Representative Blackburn:


The Twitter archive contains political ads for candidates for elected federal, state and local government offices. You find political ads by searching for the name of the Twitter account they ran under. If a federal campaign used audience demographic details — like age, gender or location — to target the ad, the results will show them. The archive also includes a demographic breakdown of the gender, age, language, state and cities of the actual audience that viewed federal campaign ads.

Details on an ad from Representative Blackburn look like this:


O.K., but how do I actually use them?

The Google and Twitter tools are available to anyone. The Facebook archive requires you to be logged into a Facebook account.

Getting in is the easy part. Navigating them can be more complicated.

None of the archives is currently designed to search for phrases. That means, for instance, if you search the Facebook archive for “don’t go to vote” — a phrase that a Kremlin-linked group employed in a Facebook ad discouraging users from going to the polls — you’ll end up with thousands of resulting ads that used the word “vote.”

On Facebook, you’ll need to search by the name of the candidate or political issue you’re looking for. On Google, search under the candidate’s or advertiser’s name. On Twitter, look for the name of the account the ad ran under. Once you get results, you can click an individual ad to learn more.

What aren’t the tech giants showing me?

The Facebook archive does not show which campaigns are the biggest spenders or allow you to search ads by date.

The archive also doesn’t show which categories of users the ad was aimed at, such as people with a certain political affiliation. The Internet Research Agency, a Russian outfit linked to the Kremlin, used Facebook’s platform to target its divisive messages to audiences interested in topics like patriotism, illegal immigration and Bernie Sanders. The archive also doesn’t show you how many times Facebook users interacted with an ad, by sharing, liking or commenting on it.

Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of project management, said it was more important for Facebook to provide demographic details about the audiences that saw political ads than to show ad-targeting information. Facebook has recently eliminated many audience targeting categories, like “Young, black and professional” and “Indigenous people of the Americas,” and said this month that it planned to eliminate more. Facebook said it planned to issue a report with aggregate facts and figures such as which advertisers spent the most on political ads.

The Google archive does not show political ads for candidates in state elections or ads on political issues.

The search giant lets advertisers, including political campaigns, target ads based on consumers’ keyword searches on Google. But the archive does not disclose the keywords that campaigns may have used to target a particular political ad. You also can’t see a demographic breakdown by gender and age of the audience who actually saw the ad.

Google said it was considering extending the archive to include ads for candidates running for state offices. In a report in August, the company listed the six top search terms that campaigns used to target political ads during the previous week. These included “ACLU,” the civil liberties group, and “Rick Scott,” the governor of Florida who is running for Senate.

The Twitter archive currently has the biggest limitations. For state or local political ads on Twitter, you can see only current ads — and those don’t include demographic audience data or spending data.

If you don’t know, or can’t locate, the Twitter handle of the campaign you are looking for, you won’t be able to search for its ads. In addition, the company doesn’t show certain ad-targeting categories — like sports interests — that a campaign may use have used to target an ad.

Twitter said it planned to broaden its archive at the end of September to include ads on national legislative issues, like health and gun control, as well as ads that mention a political candidate by name.

Will the archives prevent election meddling?


The Facebook, Google and Twitter archives should make it more difficult for foreign groups to use online ads to meddle in elections in the United States. They should also enable greater visibility into which groups are putting money into political ads, and where.

But the archives will do little to curb other prevalent voter influence techniques — like using unpaid posts, pages and groups to sow social divisiveness and spread misinformation. On that score, we’re still pretty much in the dark.

Natasha Singer is a business reporter covering health technology, education technology and consumer privacy. @natashanyt

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Taking a Spin Through Data Behind Ads For Candidates. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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