Who's Behind That Political Ad? There's An App For That

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This is great, because you can tell all your wingnut relatives they don't have to take your word for it, they can see for themselves who's behind the nastiest political ads this season. And of course, it goes without saying that every journalist should be using Ad Hawk:

As an ad slamming President Obama’s tax policies prompts a YouTube video, local software developer Bob Lannon takes out his iPhone. He opens up an app, holds it to the speaker and puts his thumb to a big button in the middle of the screen. Within 25 seconds, the app returns information on the source: a conservative super PAC titled Crossroads Generation. A splash page shows information on its spending for and against candidates of either party, a history of its ad buys and a link to information on its donors.

Following campaign money has never been easier—or more important. This year has seen an unprecedented flood of negative campaign ads in swing states like Pennsylvania. In the super PAC era of politics, voters may wonder about the veracity of mean-spirited advertisements sponsored by Orwellian-sounding entities. But courtesy of a group of activist Philadelphia software developers and their collaborators at a nonprofit government watchdog: There’s an app for that.

A free app released Aug. 22 by the Sunlight Foundation—an organization that seeks to ensure government transparency—Ad Hawk works like popular music identification apps Shazam and Soundhound. You hold your iPhone or Android-based phone to an audio source, and the app links you to information about that source. It’s just one of many citizen-empowerment apps that have cropped up as election season gets under way.

[...] Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., at the Sunlight Foundation, managing editor Kathy Kiely said that the organization “had been talking amongst ourselves ... wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Shazam for political ads? A lot of them are being produced by these groups with these Orwellian names and you can’t figure out who they are.”

Kiely adds that “we just don’t have the number of journalists that we used to,” she says, “so the people who would normally be the watchdogs, cataloguing all of this either aren’t there or they are too damn busy to do it ... A tool like [Ad Hawk] empowers citizens.”

And luckily for Lannon, Sunlight had already heard of him. Kiely had been receiving word from colleagues in Philly who had seen Lannon’s app demonstrations. “In talking to him, it became clear that, one, he was using some pretty sophisticated technology to perform this task and had made a lot of progress already,” says Tom Lee, who heads Sunlight’s tech arm. “Two, he was anxious to find a home for the work he had done.”

Plus, Sunlight had the resources to do what Lannon’s team of nightshifters could not —research, analyze and maintain the soon-to-be huge database of ads and Federal Election Commission filings hitting the airwaves during election season. They proved to be a unique match—an engineer with an idea and an organization with the perfect outlet. They offered Lannon a contract to develop Ad Hawk, and after months of development, the app is on the market in time for the conventions. “One thing folks are not apathetic about,” says Richard Hasen, an expert in election law and campaign finance at the University of California, Irvine, “is they don’t like negative ads, and in the battleground states, there’s a lot of fatigue about the ads that are run.”

He suggests that voters want to “get to the bottom of who is annoying them the most.” Judging by the number of downloads since the app’s launch—5,500 as of Sept. 2—there are a lot of voters willing to do just that.

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