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ProPublica Crowdsources Presidential Campaign Ad Money Flow
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ProPublica Crowdsources Presidential Campaign Ad Money Flow

ProPublica, a non-profit journalistic organization, launched a new crowdsourcing tool yesterday to help identify which organizations are buying up political ads as the American presidential elections draws near.

The initiative was made possible by a recent Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruling that ordered TV stations from the top 50 markets to make information about political ads available online. Previously, individuals could only access the files by going to the TV stations themselves.

ProPublica’s new tool, which is a part of the organization’s Free the Files series, collects documents from the FCC's database and asks users to answer basic questions about them. 

“Our developers have set up a system to pull those documents from the FCC site so we can make them a little bit more accessible,” Amanda Zamora, ProPublica’s senior engagement editor, told “Now, if you search the FCC site… it’s not really possible to find filings by keyword or by group. As we annotate the documents, we’re making it a lot easier for people to find them by location or by the name of the group that’s buying the ad.”

The journalistic organization is especially interested in examining ad buys in swing states, which will be crucial in deciding November's election. 

So far, ProPublica has gathered 14.8 thousand documents, and it plans to add more as the FCC receives them. The files, it should be noted, do not show money definitively spent, but only orders placed. 

When we spoke with Zamora, she said over two thousand documents had been reviewed, though only around 950 had been verified (since then, that number has gone up). Because the quality of some of the documents can be poor, ProPublica doesn’t confirm any file’s information until it has been reviewed by several people.

“One person can’t ‘free a file,’ multiple people have to agree on a data point,” Zamora explained. “The documents, frankly, are messy and kind of hard to read, and we wanted to make sure that we were trying to build the clearest picture that we could.”

Users have to answer only five simple questions – which candidate or committee bought the ad, what advertising agency bought the ad, the contract number, how much money the ad package cost, and whether there is anything else notable about the document. 

Zamora said asking so few questions was meant to encourage participation. To that end, ProPublica also created a leaderboard (which can be linked to one’s Facebook account) that shows the top file free-ers. Given the sensitivity of the issue, however, it isn’t hard to imagine people volunteering their time to dig through the files.

While political ads are always a hot issue during campaign season, it is especially important this year. This is the first time so-called 'super' political action committees (PACs) are spending money on political ads during a presidential election. Zamora, however, emphasized that ProPublica isn’t looking just at super PACs, but also at a number of non-profit groups and the politicians’ campaigns themselves.

“It’s groups we’re not accustomed to hearing about that are doing a significant amount of spending, in addition to the super PACs,” she said, referencing a colleague’s article on “dark money groups” in Albuquerque.

Indeed, raising awareness of just how much money is being spent by politically motivated organizations and super PACs is one of ProPublica’s goals.

Among other aims, Zamora listed “increasing transparency around the documents” and “having an alert system to help us identify some of the groups that we haven’t necessarily heard of before.” She also hopes that local news organizations will be able to use the information to do their own reporting on campaign ad spending. 

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