Transparency in political ads is vital to ensuring safe and fair elections, but transparency is difficult if advertisers are not required to disclose details about targeting and sources of funding. While TV broadcasters must disclose information about political ads to the public, Facebook, which is used by nearly 70% of Americans and is a source of news for many users, faces no such federal requirements.
Damon McCoy, professor of computer science and engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, and doctoral student Laura Edelson — the team behind the NYU Tandon Online Transparency Project — are bringing transparency to political advertising with the newly launched, first-of-its-kind tool NYU Ad Observatory.
Designed to help reporters, researchers, thought leaders, policy makers, and the general public easily analyze political ads on Facebook ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, the web-based tool allows users to search by state, as well as major political races, to identify trends in how ads are targeted to specific audiences and what messages are being used, who is funding each ad, and how much they are spending to disseminate them.
Recent findings include:
- Since July 2020, Trump has spent twice what Biden has on ads across their respective Facebook pages.
- In Colorado’s Third District, a House candidate who has been associated with QAnon, Lauren Boebert, has spent $32,000 on Facebook ads since July 1, while her Democratic opponent, Diane Mitsch Bush, has spent $20,000. Both are focusing on donations.
- Twenty-two percent of Trump’s ad spending in that period has been focused on messages about the media.
- In the two weeks ending September 8, Trump spent around $30 million in swing states on Facebook ads, most designed to secure donations.
- Between January and August this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, spent $2.8 million on Facebook ads, more than any other candidate.
- Nationwide, the top topic in Facebook political ads is President Donald Trump.