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This is the web page for the report "An Analysis of United States Online Political Advertising" released by the group at NYU conducting research on Online Political Advertisements.
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NYU's Analysis of Online Political Advertising in United States.

This report includes our followup analysis of Facebook's political ad archive and our initial analysis of Google and Twitter's archives. We provide analysis of the political advertisers using these online advertising networks and detailed case studies of a few major online political advertisers.

Introduction

During the summer of 2018, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all created policies and implemented portals to make transparent and archive U.S. political advertisements that have run on their platforms. The creation of these archives is timely, in light of past misuses of their platforms to manipulate past elections and the upcoming U.S. national elections. Through the lens of these transparency efforts we can begin to understand online political advertising in the United States. The analysis in our report focuses on the time-period from Sept. 9th, 2018 - Sept. 22nd, 2018, where we were able to collect fairly complete data for all three platforms.

Our high level findings are that Beto O’ Rourke appears to be the largest political candidate advertiser across all three platforms with at least 23.6 million impressions and spending $683,000. However, President Trump is the largest advertiser by total number ads with 9894, with 85% of his ads being smaller “micro-targeted” ads. Our best attempt at a fair comparison shows that Facebook has more advertisers and ads but Google likely has more impressions and spending. This is caused by more “micro-targeted” ads on Facebook’s platform and larger ads on Google’s platform.

Considering spending, when we exclude ads by Facebook and Instagram on their own platform, the advertisers who spent the most across all three platforms were the Senate Leadership Fund, a right leaning PAC, with $978,000 in total spending, Beto for Texas, with $683,000, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, another right leaning PAC, with $610,000 duringthe study period.

Facebook Political Ad Archive Overview

All Facebook and Instagram advertisements that are political or about national issues of public importance as defined by Facebook are now archived for seven years by Facebook. Facebook’s U.S. political ad archive has been available since May 24, 2018 via a web interface to anyone with a Facebook account and includes all ads of a political nature released on or after May 7th, 2018. Facebook has made an API available to some researchers (including us) for programmatic access to this archive.

Google Political Ad Archive Overview

In August of 2018, Google also released a political ad archive. Google’s archive dated back to May 31st, 2018 and, similarly to Facebook, Google stated that ads would be retained for 7 years. Google is only including "ads related to elections or issues that feature a federal candidate orofficeholder." The data is released as a BigQuery (SQL-like) dataset, available in its entirety via the Google Cloud service.

Twitter Political Ad Archive Overview

In June of 2018, Twitter released their own policy for archiving and making public information related to promoted tweets with political content. The Ad Transparency Center displays data on both political and non-political ads, but displays additional information, including detailed spend and impression information, for political ads. Twitter also publishes relatively detailed impression and spend information for each political ad. There is currently no programmatic way to access the Twitter political ad archive.

Our Analysis

We investigate the following questions in our report:

  • Which platforms are used the most for political advertising?
  • Who are the largest online political advertisers?
  • Who are unvetted sponsors?
  • What is the breakdown of political advertising by types of sponsors?

To answer these we dig into the ad count, spend, and impressions of top advertisers and impressions by advertiser categories and partisan lean across platforms.

Overall Datasets

Platform Total Ads Total Sponsors Total Pages Impressions Spend First Ad Date Last Ad Date
Facebook 860K 14087 21341 5.1B - 14.5B 89M - 376M 2014-07-17 2018-10-03
Google 23K 428 NA 677M - 5.8B 25.7M 2018-05-31 2018-10-01
Twitter 1151 62 NA 78M 1M 2016-12-21 2018-10-02

Federal Candidates Only Results (Sept. 9th, 2018 - Sept. 22nd, 2018)

Results Facebook Google Twitter
Total Advertisers 281 172 24
Total Ads 18.5K 3.5K 103
Total Impressions 76M - 220M 114.5M - 1.2B 5.8M
Total USD Spend 1.1M - 4.8M 6.3M 86K
Average Impressions Per Ad 9K - 25K 33K - 340K 56K
Average USD Spend Per Ad 153 - 685 1.8K 265
Cost Per Impressions 0.006 - 0.072 0.055 - 0.005 0.015

Top Advertisers by Ad Count

Facebook Total Ads Google Total Ads Twitter Total Ads
The Democratic National Committee 7263 NextGen Climate Action Committee 363 Beto O’Rourke 24
Home Financial Helper No Cost Solar Program 7202 Priorities USA Action & House Majority PAC 274 Senate Democrats 17
Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. 5264 With Honor Fund, Inc. 204 David E. Price 12
The Trump Make America Great Again Committee 4616 Senate Leadership Fund 197 Senate Leadership Fund 10
Solar Programs In CA Counties 4072 CFG Action Montana 149 Adam Schiff 8
Michigan Planned Parenthood Votes Super PAC 3790 Heritage Action For America 137 Ted Cruz 5
The ACLU 1897 Gale Partners LLC 132 John K. Delaney 3
NextGen Climate Action Committee 1252 Josh Hawley for Senate 93 Steve Ferrara 3
Concealed Online 1181 Heller For Senate 85 Millionaire Claire 2
Kamala Harris for Senate 1151 Mike Gallagher For Wisconsin 80 Doug Ducey for Governor 2

Top Advertisers by Spend

Facebook Min Spend Google Total Spend Twitter Total Spend
Facebook 802K Senate Leadership Fund 890K Beto O’Rourke 58K
Instagram 650K Congressional Leadership Fund 580K Kirsten Gillibrand 9K
Beto for Texas 411K Americans For Prosperity 394K Senate Leadership Fund 7K
News For Democracy 394K Priorities USA Action & House Majority PAC 291K Millionaire Claire 5K
the NRCC 272K NRSC 269K Senate Democrats 2.4K
Priorities USA Action and SMP 242K Beto For Texas 214K Suggested Politics 2K
National Education Association 131K American Conservative Union 201K Randy Bryce 1K
the Coalition to Defeat Question 3127K NextGen Climate Action Committee 177K Yes on A Strengthen the Seawall 298
MO Research, Inc. 114K Texans Are 175K Peter Roskam 212
NextGen Climate Action Committee 111 KNRCC 174K Adam Schiff 146

Top Advertiser by Impressions

Facebook Min Impressions Google Min Impressions Twitter Impressions
Beto for Texas 19.8M Senate Leadership Fund 26M Beto O’Rourke 3.7M
News For Democracy 16.4M Heritage Action For America 11.4M Kirsten Gillibrand 649K
Priorities USA Action and SMP 14.5M Priorities USA Action & House Majority PAC 8.4M Senate Leadership Fund 558K
the NRCC 12.5M Priorities USA Action & SMP 7.4M Millionaire Claire 423K
Comedy Central 12.3M NextGen Climate Action Committee 6.6M Senate Democrats 196K
State Run Films 10M NRSC 5M Suggested Politics 126K
Randy Bryce 83K NextGen Climate Action Committee 8.9M Public Advocate of the United States 3M
Yes on A Strengthen the Seawall 22K the Coalition to Defeat Question 37.5M NRCC 2.7M
Joan Greene 22K Need to Impeach 6.2M Congressional Leadership Fund 2.5M

Case Studies

We present a deep dive review of the online political advertising of two candidates, Beto O'Rourke and President Trump. We only present an excerpt on the web page, please refer to the report for the complete case study.

Beto O'Rourke

Beto O’Rourke is one of the few advertisers who is actively paying for ads on all three platforms. He is a Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas. During the time period of our study, September 9th - September 22nd, O’Rourke had 44 ads on Google properties with impressions, and spent $213,500. 20 of those ads had fewer than 10,000 impressions, 13 had between 10,000 and 100,000 impressions, ten had 100,000 - 1 million impressions, and one had between one million and ten million impressions.

All these ads are AdWords text ads soliciting donations through ActBlue.com, a fundraising portal widely used by Democratic candidates. They would typically be shown to a user searching on google.com for a keyword targeted by the ad.

On Twitter, O’Rourke has 24 promoted tweets during the study period. These tweets are a mix of donation solicitations through actblue.com, awareness raising for events, and tweets aimed at generally increasing name recognition for the candidate. He spent $58,265 on the tweets for a total of 3,756,650 impressions.

On Facebook, the Beto O’Rourke page had 520 ads, with a total spend of $411,300 for a minimum of just under 20 million impressions. All these ads were paid for by "Beto for Texas", his campaign. Across the three platforms during the time period, Beto O’Rourke spent $683,000 for a total of at least 23.6 million impressions.

We also compared the geographic reach of donation ads vs. non-donation ads. Unsurprisingly, non-donation ads that were aimed at winning voters were heavily concentrated in Texas, while donation ads were much more geographically diverse. Overall, 55% of the total impressions were located in Texas, while among the donation solicitation ads, only 22% of the ads were located in Texas. Per capita donation ads are mapped in the following heat map . Texas is clearly the most targeted state, but Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and Massachusetts were also highly targeted.

Donation Map Per Capita Impressions of Beto O Rourke Donation Ads

President Donald J. Trump

President Trump is by far the most prolific political advertiser on Facebook in terms of number of ads. During the study period, we were able to find 9,880 ads linked to his official Facebook page, but because of the rate limits Facebook imposed on our data collection, it is likely there were many ads we were not able to retrieve. Ads on this page are paid for by two different sponsors.

Of the 9,880, 5,264 were paid for by "Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.", his campaign, and 4,616 were paid for by "the Trump Make America Great Again Committee". All of President Trump’s Facebook ads sought a donation and some of them also promoted campaign rallies or fundraising dinners. 85% (8,392) of President Trump’s ads on Facebook were smaller micro-targeted ads. There were also 24 larger ads that appeared to be focused on people who had previously donated to his campaign. These donation ads disproportionately targeted people in Republican leaning states, such as Montana, as seen in the following heat map.

President Trump was much less active on Google during the study period. We were only able to find 27 ads during this time frame paid for by "the Trump Make America Great Again Committee" and none paid for by his campaign. However, because these ads are relatively large, he was still the 12th largest spender on Google’s platform during the study period, with a total spend of $131,400 and total minimum impressions of 17,320,000.

President Trump had no Promoted Tweets on Twitter, which we hypothesize is because he has sufficient organic reach on that platform.

Donation Map Per Capita Impressions of Donald Trump Donation Ads

Reports, Data and Code

Twitter Ads Scraper
Complete Report
Facebook Aggregated Data
Twitter Data Dump

Contact Us

Laura Edelson
Shikhar Sakhuja
Ratan Dey
Damon McCoy

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