Online political advertisements are a hot topic. Debates about their effectiveness and how much they influence an election have been swirling ever since the 2016 U.S. election, which saw Donald J. Trump inaugurated into the presidency.
With that said, Toronto’s Globe and Mail is gathering political ad data in regards to upcoming elections in Canada. In partnership with ProPublica, the Globe has launched a project to monitor political advertisements that people see while using Facebook.
“We have two main goals: we want to learn more about what political advertising looks like on Facebook, and we want to keep parties and political entities accountable when they do run ads,” said Tom Cardoso, data journalist for the Globe and Mail.
How it works is users must download either a Google Chrome or Firefox browser extension, engineered by ProPublica, dubbed the “Facebook Political Ads Collector.” The extension will scan a user’s Facebook feed for any political ads and log them in a database. And all the data will only be used for editorial purposes, according to the Globe and Mail.
“ProPublica was very careful to remove any information on the Facebook user, their friends or their feed,” Cardoso said. And he added the information on the “ads database contains the name of the advertising Facebook page, the text and image used for the ad, and basic targeting information.”
Cardoso said his team will let the data steer their direction in terms of reporting, but noted that such a database was important to understand the bigger picture of how much of an impact political advertisements have on an election.
“In Canada, Facebook political ads aren’t subject to the same kinds of regulatory groups or councils as traditional media, and keeping track of what ads are running can be very difficult if they haven’t been targeted at you,” Cardoso said. “As more ads pour in, I’m sure we’ll start to notice certain trends, and we’ll use those to hone our reporting and coverage.”
The biggest obstacle yet for the team has been getting people to download the extension. Ironically, the Globe and Mail has purchased Facebook ads to find more people to download it. As for how long the publication plans on sustaining the project, that still up in the air.
“Right now we have no plans to stop collecting data or end the project, particularly because it’s been so smooth and easy to run so far,” Cardoso said.
To see data that’s already been compiled, users must download the extension.
Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to correct Tom Cardoso’s first name.