With a new election season in the U.S. underway, sure to become increasingly big news as November nears—and even more sure to be a divisive, hyper-partisan, mud-slinging event, perhaps one of the worst ever, much of which could likely play out via social media messaging by the parties and candidates—new analysis of Facebook political advertising has been released by cybersecurity researchers at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

The Online Political Ads Transparency Project was conceived by computer science and engineering assistant professor Damon McCoy to build easy-to-use tools to collect, archive, and analyze political advertising data. Although Facebook became the first major social media company to launch a searchable archive of political advertising, for both Facebook and Instagram, in May 2018, McCoy found the archive difficult to use, requiring time-consuming manual searches. He decided to apply versions of the data scraping techniques he had previously used against criminals, including human traffickers who advertised and used Bitcoin.

McCoy and his team praised Facebook for its pioneering transparency in establishing a public archive and its plan to launch an API (an app interface) that will enable large-scale analysis; however, Facebook has not specified when in 2018 it will launch this API. “We wanted to quickly give voters easy tools to understand who is advertising and what they are advertising, as well as how much is being spent to influence votes and the targets of the ads,” McCoy said, according to a news release.

His team analyzed more than 267,000 political ads that primarily ran between May 2018 and July 2018 and reported:

Facebook and Instagram users viewed political ads at least 1.4 billion times

Impressions may have actually reached nearly 3.9 billion. (Facebook’s data provide only ranges.) The NYU Tandon team is quickly adapting its web crawler to add information on videos and images.

Political spending equaled at least $13.9 million, and could have been five times that

The uncertainty is due to the ranges provided in the original data. Males aged 25-34 were targeted the most.

The most ads per capita appeared in Washington, D.C.

This was followed by Nevada, Colorado, and Maine. The fewest appeared in Delaware, Nebraska, and New Hampshire.

The Facebook archive’s misidentification is among numerous hurdles to meaningful and automated analysis

Misidentifications could include mistaking of a political action committee for a person, or a political-themed clothing outlet as a political entity.

Top political advertisers and their minimum impressions and spending:

  • The Trump Make America Great Again Committee: 4,127 ads, 26.4 million impressions, $190,400
  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America: 3,389 ads, 24.5 million impressions, $188,800
  • AAF Nation, LLC (manufacturer of political-themed clothing): 862 ads, 18.4 million impressions, $78,900
  • National Rifle Association:  213 ads, 18.3 million impressions, $58,000
  • Beto for Texas (Democrat running for Senate): 377 ads, 13.0 million impressions, $194,400
  • Priorities USA Action and Senate Majority PAC: 2,794 ads, 12.9 million impressions, $120,600
  • NowThis (liberal-leaning media company): 35 ads, 11.6 million impressions, $7,400
  • Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.: 5,396 ads, 11.3 million impressions, $83,700
  • 4Ocean, LLC (focused on reducing ocean pollution): 78 ads, 10.6 million impressions, $68,200
  • Care2 (creates social networking around causes): 557 ads, 10.1 million impressions, $99,900

The data also revealed substantial online advertising by candidates in congressional and state races.

A significant number of ads—43,573—did not comply with Facebook’s new requirement that political ads list sponsors and were therefore shut down, but the NYU researchers’ daily archiving captured these “unvetted sponsor” ads. The researchers noted that some of the offenders may have been caught off guard by the policy change. They also noted that while Facebook reduced the time it takes to shut down these ads from 26.4 days to 5.6 days, the delay remains longer than the ads typically run.

The team reported the top five unvetted sponsors as identified by Facebook and their minimum impressions and spending:

  • American AF: 253 ads, 8.2 million impressions, $103,800
  • National Rifle Association of America/NRA: 56 ads, 7.9 million impressions, $78,500
  • I’ll Go Ahead and Keep My Guns, Thanks (listed as a media company): 26 ads, 7.6 million impressions, $120,300
  • China Xinhua News: 44 ads, 6.8 million impressions, $6,000
  • Walmart: 18 ads, 5.8 million impressions, $51,900

The NYU researchers have pledged to improve the transparency of Facebook’s archive by releasing weekly updates of all political advertisements collected through the November election. The team also plans to use its complex data scraping methods to reveal similar information for Twitter.

Collaborators on the Online Political Ads Transparency Project are NYU Tandon doctoral student Laura Edelson and NYU Shanghai visiting master’s student Shikhar Sakuja. Visit the project here.

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