Center for Public Integrity Asks Public to Monitor Political Ads, Mailers & Robocalls

The Center for Public Integrity is asking the public to crowdsource the final weeks of the midterm elections so it can detect efforts by third parties to influence races. In particular, the center is asking the public to log “robo calls,” send copies of mailers and keep track of ads that air in the last weeks.

In its call for help, the center said:

“The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case opened the floodgates for corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money trying to influence the midterm congressional elections in November. Campaign reporters Josh Israel, Aaron Mehta, and Peter Stone, with the help of the Sunlight Foundation’s Campaign Ad Monitor, are mobilizing the Center’s supporters to detect in real time examples of political dirty tricks, corporate ads, persuasive ‘push’ polls, pre-recorded phone messages — ‘robo calls,’ and efforts to discourage voters from showing up at the polls.”

This idea could have potential for newsrooms that want to learn how to engage the public in elections. No doubt, however, a website would have to build in considerable fact-checking and truth testing features for such an effort.

To find out more about the project, I asked Randy Barrett, director of communications for the Center for Public Integrity, about it:

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Al Tompkins: How successful has crowdsourcing been as a journalism tool for your past projects?

Randy Barrett: We’ve tried a few small exercises in crowdsourcing in the past, most notably with our “Transportation Lobby” project. None of them were real successes; we’d get a few responses, but nothing major. But we also didn’t do a great job of advertising and pushing those aspects of the projects. Probably the most successful crowdsourcing attempt was with our “Campus Assault” project, which used a survey of schools to gather data before the project started.

How reliable has crowdsourcing been? What fact-checking are you doing before posting?

Barrett: Because of how limited our attempts have been in the past, we can’t really comment on how reliable it’s been. We haven’t had a problem, as far as I know. We plan to vet more thoroughly for this project, which really is our first true crowdsourcing push that I can remember.

What are you most interested in for this project?

Barrett: We’re really hoping to get some robocalls from outside groups; these are notoriously hard to track because someone has to record it and send it in. But with the spreading of technology, it’s a lot easier to do that now than it was even two years ago, let alone in the 2006 congressional elections. Robocalls and push polls are where the real nasty, insidious stuff can come out, stuff that people won’t put in a television ad. If we can get some of those, that would be great.

Why are you so interested in ads that are corporate or union backed?

Barrett: Our focus on the project is outside groups, not campaign ads. Those are tracked pretty closely and, with few exceptions, all tend to be middle of the road. Outside groups are the ones that come in swinging dirt the most, and we’re interested in that. Also, our focus this year has spent a lot of time on what the post-Citizens United world of campaign finance will be like. One of the expected results is that outside groups will be spending more and be able to hide who’s funding them in a better way than they used to. That’s who we’re interested in.

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