A political ad airs, and you think it's stupid. But who, exactly, should you blame for the ad's ignorance? And what's the best argument to convince your friends to share your scorn?
Super PAC App wants to answer those questions. This free iPhone app, shipped Wednesday, acts as a Shazam for campaign messaging. Like that ingenious song-identifying program, it listens to the soundtrack of a presidential ad and matches it against an online database.
But instead of listing a track, title and artist, this program — developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based Glassy Media, an MIT Media Lab offshoot, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — offers political context. It touts an ability to see past the irritatingly meaningless monikers behind "Super PACs" to find who's behind an ad and grade the claims made in it.
That's a smart idea. But a trial of the app with ads broadcast in Washington, backed by spot checks of the 372 ads in its database on Thursday, suggested how much work remains to be done.
Most of the time, Super PAC App identified the commerical in 10 seconds or less — but all those ads came from the Obama and Romney campaigns and were clearly labeled as such. It didn't know a spot run by the Republican National Committee and apologized with a "Houston, we have a problem" dialog inviting me to describe the ad.
When it reconizes an ad (using technology from a Manhattan firm called TuneSat), the program categorizes the group behind it as pro-Obama or pro-Romney and lists how much money it's raised and spent so far. Some outside groups are listed as having raised zero dollars when in reality they haven't disclosed their donors to the Federal Election Commission.
But knowing how an ad is paid for doesn't get you that far. To assess the truth or mere "truthiness" of an ad, you have to follow Super PAC App's links to sites that critique or provide context about particular claims.
Most titles of these links consist of only a site's name or the first three words in a headline, so you're usually two clicks into an ad's entry before you get a sense of whether it's correct, unfair or a complete lie. A few ads were brushed aside with the comment that they contained "No specific claim," while others listed claims but didn't link to any reports about them.
More selective sourcing would help here. An assessment by a dedicated fact-checking organization such as the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact.com or the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org contributes more than a wishy-washy he-said-she-said story or, worse yet, commentary by pundits with a long history of clueless analysis.
Users of the app can cast one of four votes for an ad, "Love," "Fair," "Fishy" or "Fail"; over time, those votes should provide an extra layer of crowdsourced intelligence about campaign ads.
There's a lot of potential here. But one last issue is beyond the talents of the app's developers: Will the people dumb enough to fall for the average campaign nonsense think to use this app, or will they reject it as yet another product of the vast [fill in the blank] conspiracy?
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery