Recently, a 58-year-old white homeowner who lives in North Seattle noticed the above ad in his Facebook feed. He's a regular voter and he resides in Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien's district, so the ad definitely found an appropriate target.
But the man wondered: Who's behind this ad, and others like it? And exactly which groups of Seattle residents are these ads trying to rile up?
Stranger readers, let's see if we can figure it out.
The 58-year-old man reached out to me because of my effort to bring greater transparency to local online political ads.
But this is not your classic political ad, purchased during a particular election and aimed at influencing its outcome.
It's something different—an influence campaign aimed at tilting Seattle's raging debate over the homelessness crisis and a new head tax to fund affordable housing.
The influence campaign's tilt: decidedly negative on the head tax, harshly critical of the Seattle City Council, and particularly critical of Council Member Mike O'Brien.
So who's paying for this ad campaign and the slick website it would like to send people to?
And who, exactly, is the campaign aiming at with its targeted Facebook ads?
Here's how we can start to figure it out:
If you see "City Council: Make It Better" ads like the above (or like the below) in your Facebook feed, please take a screenshot of them and e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Mystery Ad" in the subject line.
Also, please do what the 58-year-old man in North Seattle did and click on the three horizontal dots in the upper righthand corner of the ad.
You'll be given a drop-down menu with the fourth menu option being, “Why am I seeing this?” Click that, and you'll be told a bit about the targeting information that was used by the advertiser to select you. Here's what the 58-year-old man in North Seattle was told when he did this:
Please screenshot your own targeting information and send that to me as well—along with, if you're willing, some basic details about yourself that you've no doubt already shared with Facebook or some other data collection agency in one way or another: Your age, whether you're a regular voter, whether you're a homeowner, what neighborhood you live in, who your city council member is, your education level, and where you land on the political spectrum.
If you're willing. If not, just send me the screenshots.
One thing that seems clear: these ads were purchased through the "City Council: Make it Better" Facebook page.
But who created that page? The page doesn't say.
And who's behind the recently-created web site associated with the page? That's not clear, either.
I've asked Seattle Ethics and Elections Director Wayne Barnett whether these ads could fall under the unique Seattle law requiring disclosure of information about the purchasers of online political ads. He's checking into the question. But it seems to me these ads, since they're not overtly aimed at a particular election (or running near or during a particular election), may fall into an unregulated gray area.
It also seems to me that the strategy behind these ads is familiar.
A mystery Facebook page running ads on a divisive social issue... Where have we seen that before?
The Russian influence campaign during the last US Presidential election is where we've seen it before.
Like the Russian effort, this campaign appears to know exactly who it wants to reach and it's using Facebook's targeted advertising capabilities (powered by all the personal information users constantly share with Facebook) in order to hit the most likely-to-be-receptive people with this anti-Head Tax, anti-City Council, anti-O'Brien message.
Based on the targeting information the 58-year-old man in North Seattle shared with me, this campaign also appears to be using private data that it brought to the effort (likely Seattle voter data, an e-mail list, or other consumer data). That's why Facebook told the man he was targeted for the ad because its purchaser "added you to a list of people they want to reach on Facebook."
The man may also have been targeted, Facebook said, because he's in the 35-and-over demographic. If that's true for all the ads in this campaign, then this is probably not an influence effort aimed at, say, young Seattle renters.
So far, close to 340 people have "liked" the City Council: Make It Better Facebook page. That's not a huge number of people, but it's more than enough to pack a public meeting. And once people have "liked" the page, it's easier for the campaign to target them with future ads or calls to action (and to know they're likely to be receptive).
If people go to the campaign's related website and give the campaign their e-mail addresses and other contact info? Even better. Now the campaign has even more data on them, and an even bigger roster of ideological compatriots to mobilize online.
There's been some lamenting that political discourse in Seattle has gotten unusually angry lately. Again, where have we seen this before?
There are no doubt many reasons for the more raw and aggressive tone of Seattle political discussions, but one of them may be targeted online ad campaigns such as this one.
As TIME magazine put it earlier this year, when describing how easily people can be manipulated by targeted online ads: "The campaign buys ads that deliver the messages that Facebook data confirms people want to hear—turning up the outrage and sensation factor to get attention."
People ensconced in those intentionally manufactured filter bubbles then show up at public meetings, angry and armed with the beliefs that advertisers like "City Council: Make It Better" want them to have top of mind.
So it would be useful to know who's behind the "City Council: Make It Better" campaign, and others like it.
Again, if you've seen these ads please follow the instructions above and help me learn more about who they're targeting.
And hey, if you're behind these ads—you know my e-mail address.
UPDATE: Mystery solved.