09.14.12

SuperPACApp: A Campaign Ad Watchdog on Your Lap

Who made that nasty television spot—and is it true? As presidential media spending hits prime time, technology from two MIT grads helps voters follow the money.

As the multibillion-dollar campaign season enters its home stretch and the Obama and Romney camps, each aided by a vast and often shadowy network of outside groups, deluge the airwaves, it can be difficult to keep track of the political messages—especially those ads that aren’t airing where you live, or on the channels you watch. 

Enter SuperPACApp, the brainchild of two recent MIT graduates, Jennifer Hollett and Dan Siegel. While at school, they took a class called Social TV and decided to use audio-fingerprinting technology developed by TuneSat—the same kind of media-identification technology that powers Shazam or SoundHound—to let viewers identify the sponsors of the super PAC ad they’re being subjected to.    

The Daily Beast Election Ad Tracker taps into that data and lets readers rate each ad, log when ads were created, and provides links to articles that check the claims in each spot. Users can compare ads from the campaigns and super PACs and see which groups are the most prolific.  

“At a quick glance, it can be hard to tell the difference between campaign ads and super PAC ads,” says Hollett. “And in swing states, voters can expect to see back to back to back ads. We hope SuperPACApp can engage and educate voters about the millions and millions of dollars of outside money funneling into the 2012 presidential race.”  

“To date, most of the ads have come from the official campaigns,” says Siegel. “Further, even the largest super PACs—Restore Our Future for Romney; Priorities USA Action for Obama—haven’t yet produced an overwhelming swell of ads. But there is a long-tail issue—lots of small organizations are putting out one or two ads every week or so, that in sum is creating more noise for voters to cut through than ever before. There are over 500 presidential ads loaded into SuperPACApp right now, and it’s not even mid-September.”  

And that’s where things really get interesting, and troubling. As Republican strategist Rick Wilson says: “In the past, there was limited money and unlimited airtime. Now there is unlimited money and limited airtime.” There’s no precedent for this situation, and no way of knowing the effects of a million-dollar ad buy in an otherwise-obscure swing district of a swing state.  Because the super PACs are technically not coordinating with the campaigns, they can and will try push the limits. The only certainty is that the ads will be overwhelmingly negative.

When you see a campaign ad, just point your smartphone or tablet at the screen and use the app to see who is behind it.

So here’s your opportunity to try and monitor the super PAC world from your couch. When you see a campaign ad, just point your smartphone or tablet at the screen and use the app to see who is behind it. In the process, you’ll help build the database that exists on these super PACs, especially the all-important question of where they are running ads and to what extent. The app will also help you find more information about the accuracy of the ads by linking to related articles and fact-checking. It’s an opportunity to actively engage with the election rather than just being passively affected by these ads, using new technology to increase information in real time.