13 min read
It might seem like the 2020 elections are a long way away (and in any sane democracy, they would be), but here in the US, we have a solid fourteen months of campaigning ahead of us. This means that we can look forward to fourteen months of attack ads, spurious claims, questionable information -- all of it amplified and spread via Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, Snapchat, Telegram, Pinterest, and Twitter, to name a few.
In this post, I break down some steps that anyone can use to uncover how political ads or videos get created by looking at the organizations behind the ad.
The short version of this process:
- Find organizations
- Find people
- Find addresses
Then, look for repetition and overlaps. Later in this post, I'll go into more detail about what these overlaps can potentially indicate.
Like all content I share on this blog, this post is released under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution Share-Alike license. Please use and adapt the process described here; if you use it in any derivative work please link back to this page.
1. Find out who is running the ad. This can be found via multiple ways, including identifying information at the end of the ad or finding social media posts or a YouTube channel sharing the ad. If an ad or a piece of content cannot immediately be sourced, that's a sign that the content might not be reliable. It's worth highlighting, though, that the clear and obvious presence of a source doesn't mean the content is reliable -- it just means that we know who created it.
2. Visit the web site of the organization or PAC running the ad, if they have one. Look for names of people involved in the project, and/or other partner orgs. While the the lack of clear and obvious disclosure of the organization/people behind a site is a reason for concern, disclosure does not mean that the source is reliable or to be trusted. The organizational affiliation, or people behind the organization, should be understood as sources for additional research.
If, after steps 1 and 2, there is no clear sign of what people or organizations are behind the ad, that can indicate that the ad is pushing unreliable or false information.
3. Do a general search on organization or PAC name. Note any distinct names and/or addresses that come up.
4. Do a search at the FEC web site for the PAC name. Note addresses, and names of key officials in the PAC.
5. Do a focused search on the exact addresses on the FEC web site. Be sure to include suite numbers.
6. Do a focused search on any key names on the FEC web site.
The point of these searches is to find repetition: shared staff across orgs, and a common address across orgs, can suggest coordination.
While follow up research on organizations sharing a common address, or staff shared across multiple orgs, would be needed to help clarify the significance of any overlaps, this triage can help uncover signs of potential coordination between orgs that don't disclose their relationships.
a. When doing a general search on the web for a PAC name, start with Duck Duck Go and Startpage. Your initial search should put the organization name in quotes. If Duck Duck Go and Startpage don't get you results, then switch to Google. However, because most organizations do white hat or black hat SEO with Google in mind, using other search engines for research can often get better results.
b. When searching the FEC web site, you can often get good results without using the search interface of the FEC web site. To do this, use this structure for your search query:
"your precise search string" site:docquery.fec.govor
"your precise search string" site:fec.gov.
- when searching for an address, split the address and the suite number:
"123 Main Street" AND 111 site:fec.gov. Using this syntax will return results at "123 Main Street, Suite 111" or "123 Main Street STE 111" or "123 Main Street # 111".
I generally use docquery.fec.gov first, as that brings up results that are directly from the filings, but either will work.
Unlike searches across the open web, Google will often return cleaner results than searching within the FEC site.
A note on names of companies and individuals
In this writeup, we will be discussing companies, political groups, politicians, and consultants. Generally, companies, political groups, and politicians will be named in the text of this writeup.
I have reviewed screenshots and obscured names and email addresses that contained names, and in general individuals will not be named in this writeup. However, in some cases, the names of individuals will be accessible and visible via URLs shared in this document. This is a decision that I struggled with, and am still not 100% okay with, but it's hard to both show the process while not showing any potentially identifiable information.
I am not comfortable naming people, even when their names are readily available in the public record via multiple sources (and to be clear, all of the information described here is from publicly available documents). The fact that a person's name can be found via public records doesn't justify pulling a name from a public record and blasting it out. In this specific case, in this specific writeup, I made an intentional effort to not include the names in screenshots or in text. This provides some incremental protection (the names won't visible in this piece via search, for example), while still providing some clear and comprehensible instructions so that anyone can do similar research on their own.
But, for people doing this research on your own: do not be irresponsible with people's names and identities. Naming people can put a target on them, and that is just not right.
And, if anyone who reads my piece uses my work to target a person, you are engaging in reprehensible behavior. Stop. Conducting real research means that you will see real information. If you lack the moral and ethical character to use what you learn responsibly, you have no business being here.
2. Using the steps to analyze an ad
To show how to use this process, I will use the recent attack ad levelled at Representative Ocasio-Cortez during a recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates. Representative Ocasio-Cortez responded to the ad on Twitter:
To start, OpenSecrets has a breakdown of the major funders of the PAC behind the ad. The writeup here doesn't look at the funders; it goes into more detail about the PAC, and ways of researching them. If you are looking for information about specific funders, the post at OpenSecrets is for you.
Step 1: Who is running the ad
In this instance, the group behind the ad is pretty simple to find. A person connected to the group quote tweeted Representative Ocasio-Cortez:
This leads us to the web site for New Faces GOP PAC at newfacespac.com.
Step 2: visit the web site
The site features information about Elizabeth Heng, who lost the 2018 Congressional race for California District 16. It also features the ad that attacks Representative Ocasio-Cortez.
The site also includes a donation form, and at the bottom of the form we can see a small piece of text: "Secured by Anedot." This text gives us a bookmark.
Many forms on political sites are embedded from third party services, and if we look at the original form we can often get useful information. To find the location of this form, we hit "ctrl-U" to view the page source, and then search the text (using ctrl-F) for "anedot".
This identifies the URL of the form.
Strip away "?embed=true" from the end of the link, and you can go directly to the original form. In this case, the form gets us an address:
We'll note that for use later.
Step 3: Search for the PAC name
A search for "New Faces GOP" turns up a listing in Bizapedia.
This listing provides three additional names, and two additional addresses: a physical address in Texas, and a PO Box in California.
The Texas address (700 Lavaca St Ste 1401, Austin, TX 78701) is a commonly used listing address for multiple organizations, which is a sign of a registry service.
The California address (PO Box 5434 Fresno, CA 93755) appears to be used less widely.
Step 4: Do a search at the FEC web site for the PAC name
A search of the FEC web site returns the main page at https:/
Additional details are available from the "Filings" tab at https:/
The Statements of Organization provide an overview of key people in the organization, and of relevant addresses.
The most recent Statement of Organization (shown below) contains the same Fresno PO Box (PO Box 5434 Fresno, CA 93755) found in the Bizapedia listing. The filings also include the name of a treasurer. We will note this name for focused searches later.
At the end of Step 4, we have the following information:
- multiple addresses to investigate;
- multiple people connected to the PAC;
- by virtue of having information pulled directly from FEC filings, some confirmation that our information is accurate;
Step 5: Do a focused search on the exact addresses on the FEC web site
For this search, we have three main addresses: the Fresno PO Box; the Austin, TX address; and the Washington DC address.
The Fresno PO Box links primarily to filings for New Faces GOP PAC, and for Elizabeth Heng's failed congressional bid.
The search for the Texas address returns no direct results.
The search for the Washington DC address returns results for multiple different PACs, all connected to the Washington DC address.
The FEC results also include the name of a consulting firm, "9Seven Consulting."
In the spending cycle for 2018, this firm received $156,000 in disclosed payments, per OpenSecrets.
Oddly, a web search for "9Seven Consulting" returns a top hit of a Digital Consulting firm named "Campaign Solutions" that also appears to be the employer of the person listed across multiple PACs connected to the Washington DC address at 499 South Capitol Street SW, Suite 405. These results are consistent across DuckDuckGo and Google.
A search on that address returns yet another advocacy group.
This group claims to specialize in setting up meetings with lawmakers.
By the end of Step 5, we have collected and/or confirmed the following information:
- we have confirmed that many PACs list the Washington, DC address as their place of business;
- we have confirmed that at least two political consulting firms list the same Washington, DC address as their place of business
- we have confirmed that multiple PACs list a key employee that is also part of a digital consulting firm
Step 6. Do a focused search on any key names on the FEC web site
For this search, we will focus on the name that appears across multiple filings. A Google search returns 135 results. Based on a quick scan of names, these PACs appear to be almost exclusively right leaning. Obviously, the results contain some repetition, but there are upwards of 25 unique PACs here. In the screenshot below, the same name appeared on all results; it is obscured for privacy reasons.
Additionally, the same name is connected to an IRS filing connected to George Papadopolous. This filing also uses the same DC address.
Based on the results of this search, it appears pretty clear that these PACs were supported by a common process or a common entity. The combination of shared staff on their filings and, in some cases, a shared address, could imply a degree of coordination. Clearly, the DC address is used as at least a mailing address for multiple organizations that have at least some general overlap in political goals.
What Does All This Mean
The information uncovered via this process helps us understand what this ad is, what this ad isn't, and how political content gets generated.
Clearly, the group behind the ad is connected to Republican and right wing political organizing. It is unclear whether or not the shared infrastructure and shared process used to create these PACs indicates any level of cooperation across PACs, or whether the PAC-generating infrastructure is akin to HR outsourcing companies that manage payroll and benefits for smaller companies - but given the overlaps described in this post, a degree of coordination would certainly be possible and straightforward to set up, if it doesn't already exist.
The infrastructure supporting the New Faces GOP PAC seems solid. Based on their FEC filings, the group was formed in March of 2019, and by the end of June had raised over $170,000.00. While this isn't a huge amount of money by the standards of national political campaigns, it's still significant, and this level of access to donors, paired with access to the organizational expertise to manage the PAC, suggests a level of support that would be abnormal for a true grassroots effort.
However, this research just scratches the surface; on the basis of what we've seen here, there are multiple other PACs, people, and addresses that could expand the loose network we are beginning to see here. Political funding and PACs are a rabbit hole, and this research has us at the very beginning, leaning over and peering into the abyss.
But, understanding the ad in this context helps us see that it is one facet of what is likely a larger strategy that uses leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as foils to energize the Republican base. The hyperbolic rhetoric used in the ad normalizes overblown claims and irrational appeals in an effort to drown out conversations about policy. PACs can be used to fund a body of content that can help fuel future conversational spikes as needed, and to introduce narratives. Because PACs are so simple to form -- especially when there are consultancies designed that appear to bundle PAC creation with a digital distribution plan -- PACs can be thought of as a form os specialized link farm. https:/
The message matters, but the message in this case becomes clearer when filtered through the ecosystem of PACs that helped create it.
One final note
The research that fueled this writeup isn't especially time consuming. It took me about 10 minutes of searching. The writeup took a while -- they always do -- but the process of doing a quick triage is very accessible. More importantly, every time you do it, you get better and faster. Also, it's not necessary to review every ad. Just do some - learn the process. By learning this research process, you can both see the forces that help shape (some highly misleading) political advertisements and get a clearer view into the process that allows money to shape politics. We are better able to disrupt and debunk what we understand.