As they do every four years, presidential candidates are beginning to appear much more frequently during our favorite TV shows’ commercial breaks.
With the November election mere months away, the likes of adorable Subaru commercials and creative Google spots have been overrun by political attack ads funded by Super PAC groups such as American Crossroads or Priorities USA. While it’s no secret that prime-time advertising space on network channels is extraordinarily expensive, average Americans do not know very much about the groups who sign the checks to put these attack ads on the air.
In an effort to make Super PAC information more transparent and inform the general public, Sunlight Foundation – an educational organization committed to increasing transparency in US government – and Glassy Media – a new business founded by two grad students from Harvard and MIT – recently released mobile applications called Ad Hawk and Super PAC Apps, respectively. Using the same audio recognition technology as apps such as Shazam, these apps can listen to a political advertisement and – within seconds – give users a comprehensive bio of the group that paid for it. Both Ad Hawk and Super PAC App include a detailed summary of the group’s mission statement and business plan, how much money the group has raised and spent to date, and how much cash on hand the group has in the bank. They also show how much money the PAC is spending on negative ads versus positive ads and which political candidate the group supports or opposes.
Political attack ads – from both sides of the aisle – have often had a tendency to border on the line of truth. Few would go so far as to say the ads are littered with flat-out lies, but many would agree it’d be fair to say they typically look at large issues through a very tiny window. And in today’s Digital Age, with information spreading so rapidly on so many different channels, it’s very difficult for average voters to find the truth. Super PAC Apps has a solution to that problem. After listening to an ad, the application gives viewers a list of information, statistics, or claims the advertisement made with links to reputable sources that either back up or disprove the content in the commercial. This – in my opinion – will be the most important and most helpful feature of the new app.
Obviously, these new apps won’t stop the contributions from flowing into the PACs, and they certainly won’t stop the attack ads from going on the air. They could, however, provide average voters with information they may not have obtained otherwise, and an informed general public is never a bad thing. So far this election year, over $300 million have been contributed to various Super PACs across the country. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, these multimillion dollar contributions remain anonymous, prompting the media to coin the phrase “dark money.” This isn’t to say Super PACs are “bad,” but the regulations at which they are permitted to operate have loopholes that have been found and exploited at the expense of the average voter. Since the FEC has continued to show their unwillingness to update their disclosure regulations, technological innovation has stepped in to fill in the cracks.
These two apps, if they’re used by enough people, will accomplish their goals of increasing transparency between the government and the American people.
The donors may still be anonymous, the money still dark, and the ads still factually shaky. But now, armed with our iPhones, at least we’ll know a little more about the groups who paid for them.