Political advertising has ramped up in the U.S. ahead of the country’s midterm congressional elections on November 8. According to campaign finance tracker OpenSecrets, over US$9 billion will be spent on this year’s political races; $50 million was spent in September alone.
Much of this money goes towards political advertising on social media. A newly enhanced online tool, the Ad Observatory, can help journalists analyze the nature of this ad spending.
In a recent ICFJ Global Crisis Reporting Forum webinar, Nancy Watzman, a strategic advisor for NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy and founder of Lynx LLC, spoke on how journalists can use the Ad Observatory to investigate political advertising on social media.
How it works
Created by NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, the Ad Observatory allows users to search data on political ads from social media sites owned by Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Search parameters can include keywords, topics, sponsors or regions. Users can also do basic Boolean searches with the tool, and explore keywords in relation to each other.
The tool uses data from the publicly available Meta Ad Library, which is an archive of all ads running across Meta properties. It combines this data with available election information to create easy-to-understand graphics. These visualizations can show trends such as spending over time, by top sponsor, by ad type and partisan lean, or by audience demographic. Data can also be date-restricted, for instance if a journalist is looking for ad spending over a specific period of time.
This additional level of processing makes NYU’s tool a better starting source for journalists than the Meta Ad Library, explained Watzman. “We don’t clean [the data] so much as add layers of analysis on top of it. Those topics — you cannot find that on Facebook. We also have classifications of the ads: buy versus persuade versus connect. That’s not something Facebook provides; we add that value,” she said.
The Ad Observatory does not carry any individual examples of posts flagged as political, however — only aggregated data, Watzman noted. Users will have to go into the Meta Ad Library to see those posts themselves.
“What you can find on the Meta Ad Library is the trees, and we’re showing you the whole forest on [the Ad Observatory]. If you want to go back and find a particular tree, the Ad Library is very useful.”
How to use it
Journalists have used data from the Ad Observatory to inspire and enhance their stories on politics. Some examples include: learning which candidates are using social media advertising more; comparing spending from a single candidate over different periods of time to draw conclusions about political aspirations; understanding trending political topics, like immigration and abortion; and investigating the history of political sponsors.
The Ad Observatory is best used in conjunction with the archived ads in the Meta Ad Library and other sites like OpenSecrets, a research group which provides data on money in American politics, said Watzman. She cautioned journalists not to hastily draw conclusions based purely on information in the Ad Observatory about the forces behind political winners or losers following the upcoming elections.
“Spending is just one metric,” she said. “It is true that overall, historically, the biggest spender usually wins in a race. But, that’s not just spending on Facebook, and there’s always exceptions to that rule.”
It is, instead, best to use the Ad Observatory’s information as a supplement to understand bigger stories on trends in politics. These stories can also be used to highlight the lack of information available, since there are no rules dictating what ad information Meta and other social media sites are required to make public.
“There’s so much that we don’t know, and the reason we don’t know it is because this is not required. We just have to trust Meta to identify these political ads,” she said.
Currently, the tool is most effective at analyzing English-language ads from the U.S. Part of the reason is because the Meta Ad Library, the source of the tool’s raw information, is sub-par at categorizing political and non-political ads from other countries. Although you can use the Ad Observatory in Spanish and search for Spanish-language ads, the results provided are not as comprehensive as the English-language results.
“We use a pretty conservative methodology for how we figure out whether an ad is in Spanish or not. We’re still tweaking that model,” said Watzman. “What we do hope is that this expertise we're gaining on how to detect languages and ads will become really useful in global elections.”
Watzman stressed that the Ad Observatory has been built with unique, portable infrastructure that the NYU team hopes to disseminate worldwide. In addition to creating Ad Observatories in other languages, the team also hopes to integrate the nuances of regional or country-specific jargon and idioms into the tool’s algorithms, according to Watzman.
“Sometimes, ads about immigration [in the U.S.] never mention the word immigration. They use these code words that different political extremes recognize as being about it, like ‘the caravan’ [by right-leaning organizations],” said Watzman. “I think in every country it's going to be very, very specific about what the terms used are, and the topic modeling is going to have to be different. One of the research questions that the team is exploring is how to build these nimble topic models to reflect those different languages and different ways that things can be expressed.”
Midterms and beyond
As the U.S. midterms inch closer, Watzman said that political advertising on social media is only going to get more aggressive.
“It's going to be hard to track. It's going to be hard to figure out what's going on. It's just going to be an onslaught,” she said. “It's a very crucial election in the U.S., and a lot of people have a lot at stake. We need journalists watching.”
Watzman encourages those who have questions about the tool or want to contribute to improving the Ad Observatory to reach out to the NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy team.
“After we're all done with this election, we're going to be figuring out what our next projects are. So we're always open to talking,” she said.