The battle for attention

By Jannelle Calderon

As the presidential election gets closer, political advertisements are bound to intensify on television, online, radio and on print. The Trump versus Biden showdown will flood TV screens and social media feeds. These advertisements have a great influence on voters, but this can depend on the platform and context of it. 

The Trump 2020 campaign has spent nearly $38 million on Facebook ads alone since May 2018 to spread his message. Although the Democratic candidates are also using Facebook, they have dramatically fewer ads. According to the Facebook ad archive, only billionaire Michael Bloomberg approached the ad volume of the Trump campaign, running more than 50,000 ads in February, his last month in the race.

Trump didn’t master Facebook by microtargeting, nor by using the help of foreign powers, despite controversies and conspiracy theories. His campaign did so via simply using Facebook in exactly the way the tech giant intended: pouring money and data into its automated advertising system. Most of the ads use the same template of red and blue, a call to action and a photo of Trump with thumbs up or clapping or an unflattering photo of his Democrat counterparts. Keeping the template allows his marketing team to work with what they already know creates impressions while pumping out cheap ads almost daily and appeasing Facebook’s artificial intelligence quality filters.

In the last week, April 28-May 4, the Trump campaign spent nearly $600,000 while the Biden campaign spent just over $500,000. The new month and state’s granting permission for businesses to reopen after a month-long shutdown perhaps influenced the candidates to crank up their campaigns again. 

On Biden’s Facebook ad library, it shows that he has a similar template to his ads, but is not reaching the millions of people that Trump is with every single ad launch. A few of Biden’s ads do get over a million impressions but they are often more expensive, some in the range of $15,000 to $20,000. After his many victories, following Super Tuesday, the Biden campaign dramatically increased their ad expenditure on Facebook


But last month, when the COVID-19 pandemic surged through the nation, and the world, making what once seemed important like politics was put at the bottom of the list as the fear over health and financial stability settled in for many. 

Political advertising for the 2020 elections dropped sharply in March as campaigns searched for the right messages, focused on states’ priorities and primaries were delayed. The total weekly spending in House and Senate races steadily increased until peaking at $21.5 million during the week before the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3. Since then, political ad expenditure steeply declined, reaching a low of $5 million in the last week of March, according to Advertising Analytics, a firm that tracks political ad spending. The month prior, eMarketer predicted the total political ad spending among all platforms in the 2019-2020 election cycle would reach $6.89 billion, 63.3 percent higher than spending in the 2015-2016 season, this included presidential and congressional races. 

By November when voting takes place, the pandemic is expected to have already passed and life would be back to “normal.” Until then, campaigns and online activists are taking advantage of people being home and are already reworking their tactics, including paying social media influencers to promote partisan messages, to bypass Facebook’s rules on online political ads.

According to Facebook, Russia-connected accounts spent about $100,000 on Facebook ads during the 2016 presidential election. The ads seemed to fan division on polarizing issues such as gun control and race relations. That’s a fraction of the cost of a single 30-second spot on a major TV network. But it was enough to stir up trouble. In response, Google, Facebook and Twitter instituted verification policies that require advertisers to confirm their identity using their organization’s tax identification number or other government ID. Twitter later banned all political ads.

Facebook has said its political transparency tools were better than those offered on television or radio and pointed to a series of steps it had taken to clamp down on wrongdoing. But the NYU researchers discovered several loopholes that allowed Facebook pages that had bought more than 350,000 political ads, worth at least $37 million, to avoid ever having to disclose who was behind them. That represented 54.6 percent of all Facebook pages whose ads were included in the company’s online register of political messages.

In 2016, “microtargeting” allowed the divisive messages to reach small pockets of voters in certain geographical locations based on their specific interests. Google began limiting U.S. advertisers’ ability to target political ads beyond broad categories such as sex, age and postal code. Facebook will continue to allow campaigns to target voters for any reason, down to their most personal interests.

The social network has acknowledged that the tools aren’t perfect. TikTok and Pinterest have also confronted the issue by banning political ads entirely. But none of those rules is foolproof. It has been proven, time and time again, that political campaigns, foreign governments and trolls will continue to push the boundaries, testing to see which messages, images or videos resonate with potential voters based on their data.

During the 2018 midterm elections, several states incorporated their own rules for online political advertising since no federal rule was placed to prevent a repeat of the Russian interference seen in 2016. California even considered a bill that would require internet companies to offer the public more information about the people or groups funding political ads for state and local candidates there.

In April 2018, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was among the first to react to the Russian interference crisis with enhanced political ad rules. He signed into order a law that asks for the state board of elections to form tighter regulations on political advertisements. This includes creating an archive of digital political advertisements, requires online platforms to check independent political advertisers’ paperwork and prohibits foreign entities from forming committees to buy local election-related ads.

Other states followed with new rules that give digital companies more disclosure requirements. Maryland lawmakers also passed legislation requiring digital sites with 100,000 monthly visitors to create public databases of political ads and maintain records about an advertisement’s funders, the audience is targeted and how much was paid.

The pandemic and the healthcare system seem to be at the forefront of voters’ minds, this offers House and Senate candidates on the ballots the opportunity to demonstrate that they are better equipped to lead in a crisis than their counterparts. 

“It’s more important than ever to keep the Democratic House majority,” Abby Curran Horrell, the PAC’s executive director, said in a statement. “The 2020 election will be unlike any before it, presenting unique challenges and circumstances that make it even more important for our organization to take early steps that enable us to protect and expand the House majority.”

Google’s Transparency Report dashboard was first launched in 2010, it shares data on how the policies and actions of governments and corporations affect privacy, security and access to information online. The current dashboard goes back into 2018 when midterm election campaigns sprouted. It also breaks down political group spending by state, by the advertiser and lays out the ads themselves. In the past two years, campaigns have spent most on California, adding up more than $28.3 million and least on Wyoming with $210,000. 

All this takes part in influencing people’s decisions, morals and beliefs, it brings up the question of campaigns’ real interest and the meaning of democracy. 

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