(MIDDLETOWN, CT) August 7, 2020 – Since 2010, the Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) has tracked political advertising on television, but the project only started providing data on digital advertising in 2018—and those numbers carry with them several caveats.  Why is it so hard to track digital advertising?

1. The major social media platforms libraries don’t cover all digital advertising. While Facebook (including Instagram) and Google (including YouTube) have provided data on ads since May 2018, most vendors that place advertising on third-party sites do not provide any public information on their political ad sales (Google Ad Networks is the exception). Further, there are no libraries for ads on streaming services.

2. As we pointed out in this piece, definitions of what’s political vary by platform. Almost all agree that candidate-sponsored ads count, but beyond that there lies confusion.   Facebook’s library casts the widest net, including all advertising on Facebook or Instagram that meets any of the following criteria: a) ads that reference elections, referendums, ballot initiatives, voting, political parties or candidates for public office, b) ads that are legally regulated as political advertising, or c) ads on issues of national importance.  Of course, who gets to define which issues are nationally important?  And sometimes the criteria might be overly inclusive, e.g., ads from companies that sell, say, tote bags with Trump’s name on them often end in the library.  Google, by contrast, originally only included ads concerning federal elections in its library but has since expanded to ads for state offices too. (WMP reports on the narrower set of election-related activity so that we can compare Facebook and Google advertising).

3. Standard identifiers are lacking. While Google provides Federal Election Commission (FEC) or EIN codes that can be matched to government datasets, Facebook does not.  Thus, matching advertising sponsors (especially group sponsors) across platforms—and with the FEC database—is a nightmare.  One must rely on matching strings, which often use different spellings, different abbreviations and even different names.  For example, Senate Majority PAC ads sometimes list SMP as the sponsor—and sometimes the attached page name on Facebook is completely different (e.g., Florida Knows Best).  In fact, our best efforts with the help of the Center for Responsive Politics, as described in this chapter, could only match 70 percent of Facebook spending in 2018 (and 57 percent of ad sponsors) to FEC records.

4. The data are not easy to access. While Facebook and Google provide online ad libraries that are useful for looking up individual ads or individual sponsors, it is difficult to narrow advertising to a specific time frame. Moreover, it is almost impossible to scroll through the thousands of Trump ads placed in 2020. If one wants to analyze the full range of data, then the problems are even more intractable. Facebook’s ad library API is prone to errors, and sometimes bugs remain for too long (Rosenberg 2019). In addition, a WMP investigation discovered several instances in which ads that were originally retrieved through the API later disappeared. Even the aggregated spending reports are occasionally off. See our Facebook discrepancy reporting tool.

5. Reporting requirements are thin. Most of what we know about digital advertising is thanks to the ad libraries provided by platforms like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Snapchat, but candidates for federal office must report (some) digital ad spending to the Federal Election Commission. There are several major problems with understanding digital ad spending in this way. For one, as we noted in this book chapter, groups not registered with the Federal Election Commission that place ads that mention a candidate but not explicitly electioneer have no obligation to report that spending. Second, what is reported is vague. It may just be the name of a media buyer and a dollar amount, meaning we have no idea how much was actually spent on ads (as opposed to the buyer’s services), where those ads were targeted or their content. Third, for non-federal races, state requirements for reporting vary considerably—there is no consistency in definitions of digital political ads or in what information must be disclosed.

Click here for a video of co-directors Travis Ridout and Erika Franklin Fowler describing the Wesleyan Media Project and our digital ad tracking tools as part of the Knight Foundation’s Virtual Demo Booth at the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) 2020 Conference.

ABOUT THIS POST

The Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) provides real-time tracking and analysis of political advertising in an effort to increase transparency in elections. Housed in Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) – part of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life – the Wesleyan Media Project is the successor to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which disbanded in 2009. It is directed by Erika Franklin Fowler, associate professor of government at Wesleyan University, Michael M. Franz, professor of government at Bowdoin College and Travis N. Ridout, professor of political science at Washington State University. WMP personnel include Laura Baum (Project Manager), Colleen Bogucki (Project Coordinator), Pavel Oleinikov (Associate Director, QAC), Markus Neumann (Post-Doctoral Fellow), and Jielu Yao (Post-Doctoral Fellow).

The Wesleyan Media Project’s digital advertising tracking is supported by the contributions of students in Delta Lab, an interdisciplinary research collaborative focusing on computationally-driven and innovative analyses and visualizations of media messaging.

The Wesleyan Media Project is supported by Wesleyan University, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Democracy Fund. WMP is partnering again this year with the Center for Responsive Politics, to provide added information on outside group disclosure.

Periodic releases of data will be posted on the project’s website and dispersed via Twitter @wesmediaproject. To be added to our email update list, click here.

For more information contact:
Lauren Rubenstein, lrubenstein@wesleyan.edu,
(860) 685-3813 or (203) 644-7144

About Wesleyan University
Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., is known for the excellence of its academic and co-curricular programs. With more than 2,900 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, Wesleyan is dedicated to providing a liberal arts education characterized by boldness, rigor and practical idealism. For more, visit wesleyan.edu.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.

About Democracy Fund
Created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, Democracy Fund is a foundation helping to ensure that our political system can withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Democracy Fund has invested more than $125 million in support of a healthy, resilient, and diverse democracy with a particular focus on modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square.