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The amazing Super PAC App — and some efforts to track donors

The app, which you can install on your iPhone, will identify the super PAC responsible for the political ads that are about to flood the airwaves.

The Super PAC App helps users identify the funders behind political advertisements.
Courtesy of Glassy Media

This post started life a few hours ago as a news brief about the mysterious money trail behind a TV ad being aired in swing states around the country accusing Barack Obama of “trying to force gay marriage on this country.”

We’ll get to that presently, but first we need to take a wee detour to check out the Super PAC App, an innovation so disruptive it temporarily knocked me off my reportorial mission. For the first time in my life I wish my TV would start spewing attack ads.

Yep, there is an app you can install on your iPhone that will identify the super PAC responsible for the political ads that are about to flood the airwaves. The way it works is a presidential ad comes on, you hold your phone in front of the TV or YouTube, tap the center of the app screen and … Shazam!

That joke was intentional. The app uses the same kind of audio wave-recognition technology to compare the ad to sounds in a database, except that a hit delivers not the name of a song, like Shazam, but the name of the group that paid for the ad, how much was spent on it and a nonpartisan fact-check of its claims, thanks to third-party sites such as the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact and the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s

Users are also invited to rate the ads according to a scale that includes “love,” “fair,” “fishy” and “fail.”

Created as class project at MIT

Jennifer Hollett

The app was created as a class project at MIT’s Media Lab in February by recent Harvard Kennedy School graduate Jennifer Hollett and MIT Sloan School of Management graduate Dan Siegel. Thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, this pocketful of popular empowerment is available free on iTunes.

Dan Siegel

And not a moment too soon. This year’s presidential election cycle marks the first since the creation of the super PAC, a vehicle for spending unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose individual candidates. More than 800 have raised a combined $350 million since the July 2010 federal court decision v. Federal Election Commission.

The upshot of that case: Unlike traditional political action committees, which cannot donate directly to candidates, super PACs — the popular name for the entities formally described as independent expenditure-only committees — can spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals to overtly influence candidacies.

They must report their donations at least quarterly, and their expenditures — virtually all of them media buys — within 48 hours, which makes it relatively easy to link a buy to an ad. And they may not directly coordinate their activities with a campaign or candidate.

The two largest super PACs, Restore our Future and American Crossroads are conservative; the former specifically supports Mitt Romney. They have raised $90 million and $47 million, respectively. Priorities USA Action supports Obama; it has raised $25.5 million.

Most donations are from wealthy individuals

Often run by a candidate’s former associates, super PACs so far are getting most of their river of cash from wealthy individuals. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top 100 individual super PAC donors in 2011–2012 accounted for more than 80 percent of total money raised. Less than 1 percent of donations to the most active were given by publicly traded corporations.

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Back to the anti-Obama ad that launched this post. Broadcast in Charlotte during the Democratic National Convention and in states where the presidential contest will be decided, it was paid for by the Campaign for American Values. The campaign’s head is Gary Bauer, former president of the Family Research Council and a member of the Reagan administration.

Bauer told the site Politicker that “New Morning,” a spot depicting a woman telling her husband how Obama’s efforts to “force gay marriage on this country … aren’t the change I voted for,” is the first of several ads the campaign plans.

So far, the Campaign for American Values reports having raised $750,000, of which $500,000 came from a limited liability company named Corporate Land Management, Inc. Which is all voters might ever learn about the super PAC had Mother Jones magazine not dug out the company’s incorporation papers and learned that its director, frequent Republican donor Tim Horner, is also president of a jewelry company with a stated mission of Christian philanthropy.

LLCs and PACs also on lists

Indeed a quick traipse through the disclosure data housed on the Center for Responsive Politics’ excellent website shows that the super PACs’ donor lists are peppered with LLCs and … PACs. That’s more disclosure than the groups campaigning at state levels to pass constitutional amendments barring gay marriage have engaged in to date, but it’s hardly transparent.

Untangling an interlocking web of legal relationships takes more tenacity and know-how than most voters will ever have. But who knows, perhaps when Super PAC App 2.0 is released, it will include a donor-tracking function.