Our Garbage President Is Facebook’s Biggest Political Ad Buyer

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Photo: Chuck Burton (AP)

Donald Trump may be Twitter’s most infamous shitposter, but he’s also leading the charge flooding Facebook with political ads. According to a new analysis, he’s the number one spender on the site, flanked by Planned Parenthood and Texas Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Per the New York Times, the $274,000 Trump’s campaign and his political action committee have dropped on Facebook ads since early May, earning some 37 million impressions, far outpaces the $188,000 dropped by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which got 24 million impressions. O’Rourke, who currently engaged in a risky bid to win Sen. Ted Cruz’s seat, spent $194,400 to reach 13 million. Most other politicians were far behind, spending “well under $100,000 on ads on the social network, reaching only hundreds of thousands of Facebook users,” the TImes wrote.

That’s consistent with prior reporting that emphasized Trump’s team really, really likes pouring money into the site, spending $44 million to Clinton’s $28 million on Facebook ads and with a far higher clickthrough rate due to their more inflammatory content. (More recently, Trump has been on a spending spree promoting Brett Kavanaugh, his noxious Supreme Court nominee.)

The data comes by way of a study by New York University researchers which puts the total amount of US political advertising on Facebook since May at somewhere between $13.9 million to just shy of $72 million, or somewhere between just over 1.4 billion to nearly 3.9 billion impressions. To reach their estimates, researchers examined Facebook’s newly created database of ads with political content, which launched in May in response to widespread dismay over alleged Russian infiltration of the site that reached as many as 126 million Facebook users.

The new system requires political ad purchasers to verify their identities as citizens or permanent residents, with ads flagged as political archived on a Facebook domain. The Times writes:

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 nonprofit organizations, for-profit groups and PACs. The archive also shows how much these ads were actually consumed by the social network’s users.

The paper added that while the analysis concluded that “left-wing” groups were represented heavily among the top spenders, the NYU researchers were unable to determine which side of the political spectrum was spending more in general on Facebook:

The N.Y.U. 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 groups were politically neutral, they said.

Damon McCoy, who conducted the study with two fellow researchers, Laura Edelson and Shikhar Sakhuja, said they were not able to tally the total spending for Republicans and Democrats because their analysis was ongoing, though they planned to release those figures in the future.

… But the new study found a healthy amount of activity from what the researchers described as left-leaning politicians. Of the top 20 political candidates and PACs purchasing Facebook ads, 12 were identified as Democrats while eight were Republicans, according to data provided by the N.Y.U. researchers.

Facebook’s database provides a decent look at the performance of individual ads, the Times wrote, but lacks the capability to give third parties the ability to capture the full extent of advertising on the site, seemingly by design. For example, one of the researchers on the study, Damon McCoy, told the paper groups sometimes place ads under multiple names.

The researchers wrote that because the database was apparently designed “with human interaction as the primary use case”—in other words, it conveniently lacks an API which would allow them to pull the full data set—they were only able to pull “approximately the first 6,000 ads returned by a search.” Though the researchers commended Facebook’s political advertising transparency tools, they also noted “coarse-grained ranges of impressions and amount spent per ad on political content ads makes it difficult to perform precise analysis of Facebook’s Archive of Ads With Political Content.” So that’s fun! It also explains why there is a nearly $60 million gap between the low and high end estimates of total spending.

While the researchers added that Facebook plans to release the API “later this year,” they added that the urgency of the 2018 midterm elections compelled them to move forward without the full data set.

Arguably, even the full set would not necessarily provide full transparency, given the growing influence of dark money groups which do not need to disclose their donors to the public or, as of Tuesday, the government, and can theoretically name themselves ambiguous things like Americans for Voting in Elections. And even this partial analysis showed tens of thousands of unvetted political ads had slipped past Facebook’s radar.

The researchers also identified some 43,575 political ads without named sponsors, according to the Times, meaning that Facebook staff had only noticed that they did not pass through the verification process and taken them down until after they were live on the site. The researchers wrote that while the length of time such unvetted ads stayed on the site decreased from 14.1 days at the start of the time period in question to 5.6 days by June 24th, “5.6 days is still a relatively long delay, indicating that Facebook should likely continue investing effort into reducing this delay.”

It is unclear how many other political ads could be slipping by unnoticed, since only those actually caught by Facebook could appear in the archive.

One additional little nugget noticed by the researchers: Trump’s official campaign committee and his PAC appear to be sharing the same Facebook real estate in possible violation of campaign finance laws:

“It is also interesting that this PAC and President Trump’s campaign committee are both linking political content ads to the same Facebook page. One of the rules for PACs is that they cannot coordinate with a politician’s campaign organization.”

Might want to fix that!

In any case, congratulations to our large, angry POTUS for being number one in political ads on the internet’s dumbest website.

[New York Times]



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