Social Media Offers New Opportunities in Political Advertising

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TL;DR: Americans are spending more time on social media than watching television. As we enter a time of unrest online with foreign influence in elections all over the world, here’s what Facebook is doing to try to bring transparency to its users and regain trust.

Political headlines are ubiquitous as election day approaches: Mailers, inserts, television ads and now, more than ever, social media, particularly Facebook, the world’s largest social platform. It’s new territory for many with evolving best practices, updates and unexpected variables each election cycle.

TV ad space seems to be overrun by political advertisements, but is it worth the cost? According to Global Web Index, the average internet user now spends about 15 minutes longer each day on social media than watching traditional television networks.

Some campaigns have rightly started moving funds to target voters as they scroll through newsfeeds. In the 2016 presidential election, President Trump’s campaign spent millions of dollars on advertising with Facebook, using a strategy the company has privately endorse.

While Facebook has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge how well Trump used its social network to reach voters, it has celebrated the Republican presidential candidate’s campaign internally as one of the most imaginative uses of the company’s powerful advertising platform.
— Buzzfeed

The trend of big spending continues into the 2018 midterms. With 214 million users in the U.S., candidates and causes are taking to Facebook ads to reach more voters.

Facebook reported its political ad spending to be $12 million, for ads on the social network and Instagram. President Trump and his political action community have been identified as one of the biggest political advertisers, spending $4.8 million between May and October, buying more than 100,000 ads. His efforts have been outspent by Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas — running for U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz — whose campaign spent $5.3 million on just 6,000 ads. Thought a considerably lower volume, this is likely because these ads were highly targeted to Texas voters.

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In the same report, Facebook released that $256 million had been spent on 1.7 million political ads since May, which seems staggering until you consider that that the company generates more than $50 billion annually.

But we couldn’t talk about political advertising without mentioning foreign influence: Ahead of and during the 2018 midterm campaign season, Facebook rolled out new rules in an attempt to make good on its promises to crackdown on “bad actors” — a term the company uses to identify accounts and pages that are participating in "coordinated inauthentic behavior." Political advertisers are required to authenticate their mailing address before placing ads on the platform and to disclose the entity paying for the ad as part of Facebook’s “paid for by” feature.

But it seems that the tool is great in theory, but can be manipulated: Vice News reported in October that it was able to pose as senators and run ads on Facebook without detection. When confronted, Facebook confirmed that the bogus Vice disclosures shouldn’t have been approved through its new system, but argued that these updates have instilled new transparency in social media political ads.

More discoveries and lessons, both good and bad, will come following the midterm election, likely leaving us with more questions about how to regulate political ads on social media. Facebook, Twitter and others are doing what they’ve identified as the right way and making changes accordingly, but it will be up to us to update our laws and hold these companies accountable.

For more on how social media is changing the way we approach elections, see our blog post on Facebook’s and Twitter’s efforts to rid their platforms of false information and fake accounts.

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