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Trump is the biggest buyer of political ads on Facebook

He and his political action committee have blown over US$270,000 on ads since early May, says NYU study

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Brad Parscale, the digital ad director for the Trump campaign, said his team took advantage of Facebook's targeted ad campaigns to reach voters in 2016. The group tested highly targeted messages to reach voters across the US and then pushed those messages they saw were performing best.

San Francisco

IT IS official: President Donald Trump is the single biggest political advertiser on Facebook.

He and his political action committee (PAC) spent US$274,000 on ads on the social network since early May, outpacing the second-biggest spender, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a non-profit group behind reproductive health care.

Planned Parenthood spent just over US$188,000 on Facebook ads over the same period.

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The ads bought by Mr Trump and his PAC were also seen the most by Facebook's users, having been viewed by at least 37 million people since May. That compared with 24 million people who saw the second-most viewed group of political ads, which were also from Planned Parenthood.

These findings were laid out in a new study by a group of researchers from New York University (NYU), who used Facebook's own data to arrive at the results. Facebook in May began an archive of political ads, which is a publicly searchable database that catalogues the ads and identifies which groups or individuals paid for them. It hopes the database will include any ad that has political content and that was aimed at Americans. The researchers conducted their study by scraping all that raw data; their work gives one of the most comprehensive pictures so far of who is placing political ads on the world's biggest social network and how much they are spending ahead of the mid-term elections in November.

Reaching voters through social media has become one of the most effective ways to get a message out, but until now, the transparency around the practice has been limited. That previously allowed operatives from Russia to target divisive political ads at the US electorate in 2016.

Facebook now requires buyers of political ads on its network to be verified as US citizens or permanent residents to cut down on foreign interference. That means Facebook's political ad archive largely provides a portrait of domestic activity, spotlighting both the digital ad buying of Democratic and Republican elected officials and political candidates, as well as for-profit and non-profit organisations and PACs.

The archive also shows how much these ads were actually consumed by the social network's users.

Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said: "One of the challenges in previous election cycles is that we never had a good repository of political ads." He said the study was an "important initial analysis" that reveals the potential and the many limitations of Facebook's political ad database.

The NYU researchers broke out the top 449 spenders of political ads on Facebook since May for The New York Times. Of those, 210 were left-wing groups, 124 were right-wing groups and 115 were politically neutral.

Damon McCoy, who did the study with two fellow researchers, said they were unable to tally the total spending for Republicans and Democrats because their analysis was ongoing, although they planned to release those figures in the future.

As the mid-terms approach, political consultants have said that Democrats who are running for election are spending a smaller percentage of their ad budgets on digital ads than their rivals - sometimes as little as 10 per cent, versus more than 40 per cent for Republicans.

For Mr Trump, the new study's findings confirm previous reports of how active his operation has been on social media. Brad Parscale, the digital ad director for the Trump campaign, said his team took advantage of Facebook's targeted ad campaigns to reach voters in 2016. The group tested highly targeted messages to reach voters across the US and then pushed those messages they saw were performing best.

Recent Facebook ads purchased and placed by Mr Trump's operation show a similar style of testing, often running a dozen versions of an ad.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The only other political candidate to come close to Mr Trump's Facebook ad spending was Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat and congressman in Texas' 16th Congressional District. He put in at least US$194,400 since May on Facebook ads that reached roughly 13 million people, said the researchers. NYTIMES