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The State of Digital Political Advertising in the 2020 US Elections

Advertising is traditionally one of the most visible and easily covered aspects of US political campaigns. But as the 2016 US presidential election showed, the digital advertising ecosystem’s opacity prevents the same level scrutiny into digital ads as we are accustomed to with older forms of media, such as TV and radio. During the 2016 cycle, the public, journalists, academics, policymakers, and regulators had little knowledge of what campaigns and political action committees were capable of doing or what platforms allowed them to do regarding paid political content. Between Russia’s meddling into the election and Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of Facebook data (not to mention Facebook’s failure to enforce its data use policies), we were caught off guard. Heading into the 2020 U.S. presidential election digital political advertising policies and practices are now central concerns to regulators and researchers.

As a research assistant at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, I’ve been working alongside legal scholars and other social scientists to better understand the digital political advertising landscape and how it is going to impact the 2020 US elections. Our research group has dug into the ethical principles of digital politics from the diverse perspectives of academics, political consultants, and platform companies; the differences in state laws regulating digital political advertising; the differences between Facebook, Google, and Twitter’s political advertising archives; and what the major digital advertising platforms’ new rules and targeting capabilities are for political advertising.

All of our research (including reports, working papers, and side-by-side comparisons of platform policies across over a dozen areas) is available at citapdigitalpolitics.com.

Here are three of my major take-aways and concerns regarding the state of digital political advertising:

Even with Google’s new, restrictive political advertising policies, Facebook and Google will remain the dominant players in the ecosystem.

In our comparative analysis of Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Snapchat’s advertising capabilities and policies, we found that all four advertising platforms have extremely low barriers to entry. Minimum daily spend requirements are low, no human contact or connections with the companies are needed, and the ads themselves can be as simple as an image, text, and a landing page. Facebook and Google’s verification processes for political advertisers are new barriers, but these processes only take around two business days.

Facebook and Google still have the largest reach, clearest rules, and most useful advertising capabilities for political advertisers in the US, like the option to target by congressional district. Even with Google’s limitations on political ad targeting (such as no list-matching or targeting of geographic areas smaller than zip codes) its powerful contextual targeting and reach will keep it as an indispensable tool for political advertisers. While some political advertisers may devote small budgets to Reddit and Snapchat, they won’t challenge Facebook or Google’s clear command of the field.

While federal candidates have free reign in the digital advertising ecosystem, state and local candidates have less options.

In lieu of federal guidance, states have begun regulating digital political advertising. California, Maryland, New Jersey, Nevada, and Washington now require that platforms keep records of the state and local political ads that ran within the state. In response, Reddit has banned all state and local political advertisements, Facebook has banned them in in Washington, and Google prohibits them in Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and Washington. This means that Seattle city council candidates can’t run ads on Facebook or Google, but candidates for Washington’s ten US congressional districts can. While there are many concerns about digital political advertising, restricting small, state-and-local candidates’ access to cheap outreach tools while still allowing access to federal candidates is not an ideal outcome of legislation.

There are still ways to run paid digital political communications without ending up in an archive.

The advertising archives created by Facebook (including ads on Instagram), Google (including search, display, video, and YouTube), Snapchat and Twitter all go above and beyond what is legally required of them. These archives aim to make digital political advertising transparent and allow the public to hold digital advertisers accountable, thus deterring offensive, misleading, or otherwise problematic advertising. But, Reddit does not maintain such an archive. Neither do influencers, who political advertisers are exploring paying for posts. In the 2020 elections, advertisers will have a harder time running ads below the public’s radar on Facebook or YouTube, but they can still use lesser known digital advertising platforms and strategies to reach their audiences without anyone else seeing their message.  

The digital politics research group at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life will continue to monitor changes in platforms’ political advertising policies. Follow us on Twitter to keep up-to-date on our latest research initiatives and findings.

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