Vetting Political Ads on Social Media

August 13, 2019

It’s no surprise that sponsored political posts are more and more visible in your social media feeds and website browsing. Candidates, interest groups and others are deploying small and large paid advocacy campaigns designed to test messages, gather data and encourage engagement. As we have discussed previously, these ads are strategically placed, especially on Facebook due to the company’s thorough targeting tools. Digital political spending is expected to rise to approximately $2.8 billion by the end of the 2020 election cycle — that is A LOT of political content in your personal online world. This content is curated carefully to help sway your political opinion, and as it infiltrates your timeline, you may be faced with some false information. In this blog post we ask, “What’s true, what’s legitimate and why me?”

First, it’s important to understand how exactly these ads are appearing on your personal feed. Almost anyone can advertise on Facebook, it just requires money, a brief verification process and time.  

Money – Advertising can be incredibly pricey, even online. Facebook advertisements have an average cost per click (CPC) of $1.86, but they can be over $5.00 CPC depending on factors from ad quality to competition. To give you a general idea, the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent a combined total of $81 million in Facebook advertisements in 2016. The Trump 2020 campaign has already spent more than $4.6 million on Facebook ads since December. Campaigns mine data and utilize Facebook’s sophisticated targeting options to reach prospective supporters. Ads may appear in your feeds because you liked something in common with a campaign supporter, share a mutual friend or read a certain article. 

Legitimacy – Following the 2016 campaign, Facebook modified its authorization protocols. Before placing an ad, a campaign organization must prove its legitimacy through an authorization process. Facebook’s identity authorization process today requires a  two-factor authentication which is a security feature that helps protect the account from hacks. The page administrator will then be asked to verify credentials by producing a US-based, government-issued ID and other personal information. Keep in mind, this still may not prevent fraudulent accounts from launching stealth paid influencer campaigns. 

Time – it’s a lengthy process. The identity authorization process can take up to 2 weeks alone, and if approved, more steps follow. The process in its entirety could take around a month in actuality. If you are planning a political ad campaign, keep in mind the lead time necessary for Facebook advertising.

Truth Ads aren’t always direct appeals for support. As evidenced in the 2016 race, organizations use a variety of methods to sway audiences. In fact, reporting shows that the Russian effort in 2016 often deployed pop culture memes to entice and grow audiences. That analysis also revealed that of the roughly 3,500 ads created by the Russians, only about 100 overtly mentioned support for Donald Trump or opposition to Hillary Clinton. More than half — about 1,950 — made express references to race. It’s safer to question an ad before you like or share it.

Fact-checking There are easily-accessible fact-checking websites that are political by nature such as Snopes, Politifact, and that can help answer any questions or uncertainties you may have. Fact-checking on these sites are as easy as typing in a keyword or phrase into the search bar. It is imperative to make sure that before sharing and spreading the word about any political campaign, you are double-checking the facts and solidifying sincerity. 

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