Reporting Recipe: How is your audience targeted by political ads?

It sounds creepy, but candidates know exactly who you are, and they think they know how you’re going to vote.

Jeremy B. Merrill
Online Political Transparency Project
6 min readOct 26, 2020


Political candidates use both data and guesses to target voters with particular Facebook ads — the campaigns literally upload a spreadsheet of people’s names, phone numbers, or email addresses to Facebook. This is legal and practically everyone does it. There’s a secretive trade in this data, not just on both sides of the party aisle, but also to shady political groups and corporations trying to sway voters’ opinions. Facebook is happy to sell ads to paying customers based on this targeting–but is less happy about letting the public know how others are being singled out.

This reporting recipe will show you a new way to report on how this data is being used to determine which ads members of your audience see — and which ads they don’t.

Facebook keeps this data under wraps. The “Ad Library,” which Facebook positions as an answer to calls for transparency, won’t tell you if an ad was targeted to a specific group of people… or just to a vague group like Democrats in North Carolina. They’ll only show it to you if you’re actually on the list.


If a voter is on one list, they might get a negative ad about crime and policing; their neighbor might be on another list, and get a positive ad about the economy.

Advertisers even use these lists to remind some people to vote — or in some cases, to spread doubt about candidates, which can have the opposite effect.

It’s perfectly legal and almost completely unregulated.

Your readers/viewers/listeners may be shocked to learn how their personal information is circulating and being uploaded to Facebook by an array of different political groups.

Luckily, volunteers have sent a lot of this data to the NYU Online Political Transparency Project. And you can see it for races in your state.

The maybe-creepy reason you’re seeing political ads online: the candidates know who you are.

Here’s how you can use Ad Observatory to report on how candidates target voters, supposing you’re a political journalist in North Carolina.

  1. Visit the Ad Observatory page for the North Carolina Senate race, by clicking “Races”, then selecting your state, and then the Senate. Or just click here:
  2. Scroll down to the “Who do Cal Cunningham and Thom Tillis target with their ads?” section and look for entries that say “List of specific people.”
  3. Note that, Thom Tillis, the Republican uploaded a list of people’s phone number, on a list uploaded by DT Client Services LLC. If you look up DT Client Services, it turns out it’s a company — formerly the GOP Data Trust — that provides data to Republican candidates (and also some energy industry groups.)
  4. Cal Cunningham, Tillis’s Democratic opponent, uploaded his own data. We don’t have any way to know where it came from. He also targeted ads to people who like NPR. Makes sense!
  5. Now write it up! Your readers/viewers/listeners have never seen this data before.

Or, you might notice that John Hickenlooper, the Democratic candidate for US Senate in Colorado, appears to be using data uploaded by his official Senate office for his campaign. Might be a bureaucratic misclick or typo, might be something else. You find out!

Some top Senate races:

  • North Carolina: Thom Tillis (R) v. Cal Cunningham (D)
  • Colorado: John Hickenlooper (D) v. Cory Gardner (R)
  • Iowa: Joni Ernst (R) vs. Teresa Greenfield
  • Michigan: Gary Peters (D) vs. John James (R)
  • Georgia: David Perdue (R) vs. Jon Ossoff (D)
  • Georgia special: Kelly Loeffler (R), Doug Collins (R), Raphael Warnock (D), et al.
  • South Carolina: Lindsey Graham (R) vs. Jaime Harrison (D)
  • Maine: Susan Collins (R) vs. Sara Gideon
  • Montana: Steve Daines (R) vs. Steve Bullock (D)

What about non-candidate groups?

Non-candidate groups like SuperPACs and dark money groups use this tactic, called “Custom Audiences” or “voter file matching” too.

To find top outside spenders in your state, click the “States” button on the top bar of, then select your state.

You’ll see a bar chart of top sponsors. Click any sponsor’s name to see a summary of the Facebook ads.

Interesting outside spenders:

  • The Lincoln Project — a group of anti-Trump Republicans — aims to convince voters to vote for Biden. It targets some voters by name (a list uploaded by “TUSK Inc”) — and others (not targeted by name) who Facebook thinks are “likely to engage with conservative content” or with “moderate” content. Makes sense!
  • Do your readers know that Facebook might have categorized them that way? They can see their categories at
  • ExxonMobil has spent $6.7M on ads about how great pipelines are. And about how unnecessary regulation can hurt energy growth. To who?
    Conservatives, fans of the Republican party or the NRA. Exxon doesn’t necessarily know who those people are by name; instead, they asked Facebook to show the ad to whoever meets those “behavioral” targeting categories.
    They have other ads, like this one, for liberals. They talk about clean energy. (We don’t yet have a way on Ad Observatory to directly show you which ads are targeted to which segment.)
  • They also target other ads with data from LiveRamp (a databroker) or Edelmen (a marketing and PR firm).
  • Cost of Chaos, an anti-Trump brand of liberal SuperPAC Priorities USA, targets specific, granular locations in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin. It uploads its own data too.

Here are some important details:

  • Targeting people for political ads by name is totally legal! Groups on all sides do it — and often for admirable reasons, like reminding people to vote, or talking to people about the issues that likely matter to them.
  • Often ads targeted by “interests” are targeted to a big list of interests. While an ad might be targeted to fans of Shark Week — the candidate’s ad might not be targeted just Shark Week fans. It might be targeted to people who like particular content that skews young, or something like that.
  • The data in Ad Observatory is not complete. It’s provided to us by volunteer participants in the Ad Observer project. That project, in which volunteers install a browser extension, automates the process of copy-pasting all the ads the volunteer sees on Facebook and sending them to NYU. The extension does not send volunteers’ personal data to NYU. Volunteers have agreed to do this so we all can have better understanding on how political ads are targeted. We do need more volunteers.
  • If you go to Facebook, click the “…” button in the top right corner of an ad, then click “Why am I seeing this?,” you can see Facebook’s explanation for that one individual ad you saw. It’s this data that gets fed into the database.
  • Facebook doesn’t publish that targeting information in its Ad Library. That’s why we need Ad Observer, to bring transparency and accountability. Facebook doesn’t like the Ad Observer project. They’ve ordered it to shut down. You can invite your readers/viewers/listeners to join in at (If you want to write about this, in addition to or instead of the data itself, we can send you a statement.)


Promise we’ll get back to you and work with your deadlines.

We will continue to write about technical problems with Facebook political ad disclosure. Check out Ad Observatory, a searchable site revealing trends in Facebook political advertising in the 2020 elections, and download the Ad Observer plug-in tool to safely volunteer information for researchers and journalists on what ads you are seeing on Facebook.