Tracking online political ads improves with new research methodology

A road sign decorated with stars and stripes that reads 'Election 2024'.
An estimated $1.6 billion was spent overall on digital political advertising during the 2020 election cycle, up from the roughly $700-800 million during the 2017-2018 campaign season.

It’s not politics as usual since the advent of digital marketing. And because these platforms are largely unregulated, it’s difficult to track who is behind the unprecedented amounts of money being spent on social media and other online platforms to influence voter behavior across the United States.

Washington State University political scientist Travis Ridout is part of a national team helping remedy that. 

In their latest research, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the team is using computational coding and data analysis to advance the tracking of online political advertising by advocacy groups and other special interests whose goals may be less than transparent. Timing is even more vital as recent election cycles have shown a major transition with special-interest groups spending more on political advertising than both the candidates themselves and their political parties.

“There’s been a huge shift toward digital advertising over the past decade, and at the same time groups are increasingly investing in political campaigns,” said Ridout, director of the WSU School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs. “This makes it essential to know how groups are spending their money.”

An estimated $1.6 billion was spent overall on digital political advertising during the 2020 election cycle, up from the roughly $700-800 million during the 2017-2018 campaign season.

The team currently is fine-tuning their efforts to analyze digital marketing and messaging data from Facebook and Google during the 2024 election cycle. Their tracking ability will help identify which candidates and causes the groups are supporting or opposing with their digital marketing.

Ridout is also a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, the multi-university effort that led development of the new tracking methodology.

“We will be able to provide the public with information that includes what groups are placing digital ads, how much money the groups are spending on particular ad messages, what races are being supported, or not supported, in those ads, and which candidates are benefiting,” Ridout said.

The research team, comprised of Ridout, Erika Franklin Fowler at Wesleyan University, and Michael M. Franz at Bowdoin College, is widely recognized for their analyses of political marketing efforts. The trio has beencollaborating on research to track election advertising since the media project’s inception in 2010 – the same year a U.S. Supreme Court decision paved the way for unlimited corporate and union investment in federal election campaigns.

Of note, much of the team’s advertising research is only possible because Facebook and Google agreed to voluntarily share general advertising information with the public through their online libraries. Unlike television and other broadcasting companies, digital platforms are not required to provide documentation and disclosures of political advertising.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research which supports early work on untested but potentially transformative research.

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