by Lois Beckett, ProPublica
Lauren Berns was browsing Talking Points Memo when he saw an ad with President Obama’s face. “Stop the Reckless Spending,” the ad read, and in smaller print, “Paid for by Crossroads GPS.” Berns was surprised. Why was Crossroads GPS, a group that powerful Republican strategist Karl Rove helped found, advertising on a liberal-leaning political website?
Looking closely at the ad, Berns saw a small blue triangle in the upper-left hand corner. He knew what that meant: this ad wasn’t being shown to every person who read that page. It was being targeted to him in particular. Tax-exempt groups like Crossroads GPS have become among the biggest players in this year’s election. They’re often called “dark money” groups, because they can raise accept unlimited amounts of money and never have to disclose their donors.
These groups are spending massively on television spots attacking different candidates. These ads are often highly publicized and get plenty of media attention.
But these same dark money groups are also quietly expanding their online advertising efforts, using sophisticated targeting tactics to send their ads to specific kinds of people.
Who they’re targeting, and what data they’re using, is secret.
Online advertising companies have amassed vast quantities of information on what individual people read, watch, and do on the Internet. They collect this data using small files called cookies, which allows them to track Internet users as they move from site to site.
These anonymous profiles of information are used to customize advertisements — like sending casino ads to someone who just bought a plane ticket to Vegas.
But these profiles are also increasingly used by political groups, which can decide which people to target with a message — and which people to avoid — based on the kinds of articles they read and the kinds of sites they visit.
Many Internet users who see these ads may not be aware they’re being targeted.
As we’ve detailed, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are using advanced tracking and targeting tactics. Working with our readers, we found two examples of dark money groups using this kind of targeting, as well: one ad from Crossroads GPS and one ad from Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit linked to the politically influential Koch brothers.
How many of these ads are dark money groups sending out? It’s hard to say, because it’s not easy to track exactly how much Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity, and similar groups are spending on different kinds of advertising.
But these politically influential organizations are moving more of their efforts online.