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Two new iPhone apps help voters process political ads

I wanted to share a quick post about two new iPhone apps that instantly shed light on political ads (often funded by 501c4 organizations that have loose disclosure requirements) while people are watching them.

The apps have some implications for us in the dialogue and deliberation field.  Certainly having a more informed electorate is a value we all share and promote.  I wonder, though, how we can use apps like this to encourage people to take the next step and talk with each other about the ads, who’s paying for them, and how they can separate truth from fiction in political advertising and encourage others to do the same?

The two iPhone apps that were released last Wednesday are the Sunlight Foundation’s Ad Hawk and Glassy Media’s Super PAC App. Both apps allow users to instantly identify political advertisements with their smartphones, using technology like the Shazam music app, which “listens” to a few seconds of music before it uncannily identifies the song and artist for you.  These two apps listen to a political TV ad and then quickly identify the ad and provide information about the group behind it.

The database for the Super PAC app is constantly updated, and after a few seconds the ad you are listening to is matched up with a record of it in the database. From there, the app provides you with all sorts of handy information about the commercial, according to co-creator Dan Siegel.

We think it’s still important to know basic facts. So the first screen is information including: Who is this organization? What are they called? Is it Restore Our Future? Is it Obama for America? Is Crossroads GPS? Is it Priorities USA Action? Then what are they? Are they the official campaign? Are they a super PAC? Is it something else? And then it’s how much money have they raised? How much money have they spent in this campaign season?…

[T]here’s an opportunity to go into another screen, which is the actual claims of the ad. So a user can click through and we’re disaggregating an ad into distinct claims. For each of those claims, here are objective, nonpartisan, third-party sources that are talking about that claim.

So you can quickly get a sense of, “Is this claim based in any kind of fact or is it all noise?” And hopefully that’s an opportunity for the user not to have to do a lot of homework to figure out, “Am I watching an ad that’s kind of true? Not true at all? Or actually, yeah, that is telling me some really valuable information.”

The app itself does not do the fact-checking, but instead compiles information from different fact-checking sources, including Politifact and FactCheck.org. It also helps identify which Super PACs are behind the ads.

In this article on TheHill.com, Jennifer Hollett, co-founder of Super PAC App, said the app “is an opportunity to educate and engage voters, in a way that makes traditional political TV advertising more interactive as well as accountable.”

Ad Hawk, which is available for iPhone and Android, provides information about how much the ad sponsor is spending and where the ad is airing and a collection of media reports about the candidate or group.

Super PAC App, which is available for iPhone, provides information about how much the group is spending, as well as information on the ad’s claims. The app also allows users to rate the ad.

The apps rely on databases from the Federal Election Commission and Federal Communications Commission. Both apps are available for free.

So how are you engaging people across divides in this heated political climate?  Do you think apps like this will be helpful in your bridge-building work?

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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