As the primary season heats up, the spotlight is back on political advertising and social media. Recent controversies over “fake” ads on Facebook raises questions about the ethics of campaign strategies that target voters with misinformation. It doesn’t help that many of these tech companies are not exactly transparent about processes for addressing biased or misleading content on their platforms.
But now we can take little peak behind the digital curtain, because these sites are providing more information about who buys political ads. For example, Snapchat releases a public, full data file on their political advertising. Kudos to them! I took a look at the 2019 data to see where campaigns sit among the top fifty Snapchat spenders:
Some of the results are surprising. What on earth is General Mills doing buying political ads? It turns out they were part of a charity campaign partnership with groups like HRC. Other top spenders include public service announcements from advocacy groups like truth and Every Town for Gun Safety.
It looks like the Trump campaign has spent the most on Snapchat this year across two organizations: the MAGA Committee and Donald J. Trump for President. Among the Democrats, Elizabeth Warren sits at the top, followed by Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and way down at the #50 spot, Joe Biden.
I also looked at how these ads break down for each of the major campaign groups. Snapchat provides the number of impressions each ad got, as well as how much it cost. Dividing the two lets us measure “virality” by looking at how many views each campaign gets for every dollar they spend on the platform.
These patterns follow the conventional wisdom that the Trump campaign gets a lot of “free” media for stirring the pot, because strong emotions (both positive and negative) drive higher attention. Lots of research in political sociology on the media shows why this happens. The patterns among Democrats also tell us a lot about who is investing in new media and targeting a younger audience through new platforms, as well as who is actually turning that investment into attention.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.