New research is pointing out a disturbing trait among the political ads bought on Facebook: many of them haven’t left a public paper trail.
During the 2016 election, paid political ads more often than not were sponsored by “suspicious groups” that left no information about their true identity, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
They came to the conclusion by examining over 5 million paid ads on Facebook, and homing in on the politically divisive ones. The research team managed to identity 228 groups that were buying the ads around hot-button issues, but only 106 of them could be traced to actual organizations like media websites, non-profits or “astroturfing” political groups.
The remaining 122 were declared “suspicious.” The research team found no evidence of their existence outside Facebook.
One out of six of the suspicious advertisers later turned out to be Russian actors. This was verified by data publicly released by a Congressional committee, which has been investigating Russian attempts to exploit US social media platforms during the 2016 election.
The research underscores the need for more transparency around digital political ads, said the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.
“As this peer-reviewed study demonstrates, secretive groups were able to run tens of thousands of digital political ads without detection because of massive loopholes in our campaign finance laws,” said Brendan Fischer, a director at CLC, in a statement.
It’s why his group supports the Honest Ads Act, which lawmakers unveiled in October. If passed, the new legislation would require internet companies to reveal the buyers of online political ads.
Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he supports the legislation. In the meantime, the company has said it’ll verify the identities of all political advertisers on the platform. This includes anyone who wants to purchase ads around hot-button issues.
The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison gathered the political ad data by enlisting over 9,000 volunteers. Each volunteer installed a tracking tool designed to capture the ads over their Facebook account from between Sept. 28 2016 to Nov. 8 of that year.
The research team then focused on a sample of 37,000 divisive political ads and attempted to trace who bought them.