Automated Issue Classification of Political Advertisements on Facebook

By Natalie Appel ‘23, Noah Cohen ‘22, Spencer Dean ‘21, Sam Feuer ‘23, Magda Kisielinska ‘22, and Brianna Mebane ‘22

Since 2010, the Wesleyan Media Project has hand coded American political advertisements for an extensive list of variables relating to content and tone. The information collected through this process is insightful, however it is a time intensive task. Thus, the initial question we sought to answer was how much, if any, of this process could be automated in order to keep up with the scale of digital advertising. Our goal was to do so by training machine learning models on the text of the existing hand coded ads in order to predict the characteristics of new ads. We tested a number of methods and ultimately found that our Random Forest worked best for binary issue variables while a distilBERT Neural Network worked best for multi class variables, especially ad tone.

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Spanish language advertising by prominent groups in the 2020 presidential election

By Angela Loyola ’21 and Sam Feuer ’23

A prior Delta Lab research project on the amount of spending by presidential candidates Joseph Biden and Donald Trump on Spanish language Facebook ads found that while Trump was leading in spending until a few weeks before the election, Biden’s spending skyrocketed as the election neared, eventually surpassing Trump’s lead. As Hispanic voters were recognized to be a crucial voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election, especially in swing states, we wanted to continue researching the sorts of appeals that advertisers were using to target this community. How did Spanish language spending by the two candidates compare to other sponsors? What type of ads were run, and where were Spanish ads targeted?

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Assessing Discrepancies in Reported Advertiser Spend by Google

By Natalie Appel

Although Facebook requires sponsors of ads about politics, elections, and social issues to disclose who paid for the advertisement, how much was spent, and who was targeted, there have been a number of instances in which Facebook has failed to recognize and label these advertisements. A study by digital experts at NYU found that Facebook failed to label and identify 9.7% of ads relating to elections and other social issues between May 2018 and June 2019, representing a total spend of 37 million dollars (Silverman). Another analysis of Facebook’s Ad Library found that in many instances Facebook has grossly overreported or underreported spending, resulting in unexplained spikes in cumulative advertiser spend or the number of total ads. Since there has been a lot of discussion surrounding both the accuracy of Facebook’s data and its failure to disclose who paid for all of the political advertisements on the platform, I was curious to see if Google, another major platform for political advertisements, was having similar problems reporting all the ads related to politics and the election.

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Trump’s Lead in Spending on Spanish Facebook Ads was Surpassed by Biden’s Last Minute Push

By Angela Loyola

According to the NYT and several other news outlets, as the election neared, polling in battleground states like Texas and Florida indicated that Biden was not leading Trump with the Latino vote in every case. And even in the cases when he did hold a lead, it was by a much smaller margin than Clinton did against Trump in 2016. 

This was significant because as the Latino electorate has grown in the US, especially in key battleground states, both parties have been eager to target Latino voters in their ads to garner their support. I wanted to conduct research this semester that would allow me to dig into these ads for the presidential race. While this could include a variety of different methods, I chose to investigate how each candidate might be targeting Latino voters through Facebook advertising in Spanish.

Data used in this analysis came directly from the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks advertising through Facebook’s Ad Library API tool and Ad Library Report.

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Presidential advertising by candidates reveals microtargeting tactics on Snapchat

By Spencer Dean ’21


The booming market for political advertisements on digital platforms remains dominated by two major players, Facebook and Google. Together, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have spent nearly $300 million on ads run on these platforms since mid-April. However, a new player may be emerging in social media app Snapchat, which boasts an audience of 249 million daily active users and has shown significant levels of political advertisement activity. 

Snap Inc., the parent company behind Snapchat, recently made waves in the stock market after posting record earnings in the third quarter. Analysts attributed this growth to both a surge in average ad prices, up 20 percent in the past year, and an increased demand from advertisers. 

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Racial Justice in Presidential & Senatorial Candidate Ads

By Sam Feuer ’23, Angela Loyola ’21, and Natchanok Wandee ’23

According to the New York Times, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement may be the largest movement in U.S. history. With fifteen to twenty-six million people protesting across the country after the murder of George Floyd, the quantity of people and their geographic spread has made it clear that racial justice is a very present issue for many Americans. 

Protests and demonstrations are an essential part of the democratic process and can have a great impact on candidates’ platforms. Additionally, the ways that candidates frame the movement, either positively or negatively, can shape its future. Due to the prevalence of the movement, we were interested in researching how the movement has influenced presidential and senatorial campaigns. Conversely, we are also interested in how candidates talk about BLM, as they may provide some clues about the future of the movement. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, over $60 million has been spent on pro-Biden or pro-Trump Facebook ads alone between April 9th to August 8th. How prominent is the Black Lives Matter movement in these ads? How big of an influence has the movement had on these campaigns?

To evaluate this, we analyzed the frequency, content and spend percentages of the ads related to Black Lives Matter. Data used in this analysis came directly from the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks advertising through Facebook’s Ad Library API tool. 

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Digital Spending on Facebook by Geography

By Roshaan Siddiqui (’22) and Pavel Oleinikov

In its tracking of campaign spending on Facebook, Wesleyan Media Project focuses on identifying the sources of money behind the ads. Facebook requires that advertisers post the “Paid for By” disclaimer, listing the organization that paid for the ad. Often, the same organization will engage dozens of Facebook pages to post the ads. Together with the Center for Responsible Politics, WMP matches the Facebook records against external data to identify the sponsors behind political ads. The numbers you are seeing in the map are an aggregation of the amounts posted by Facebook in the spending reports on the Facebook Ad Library webpage. We report the spending by week, with Sunday being the first day of a week.

Please click here (or click the image below) to use this interactive tool.

Long-term monitoring helps identify gaps in Facebook reporting

By Pavel Oleinikov

In Facebook’s Ad Library, Facebook reports spending on political advertisements by day, week, 30-day, and 90-day summaries, and total spending to date by Facebook Page and Disclaimer (for example, Page: Donald J. Trump, Disclaimer: TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN COMMITTEE).

Through long-term monitoring of the Facebook reports, we became aware that not every day’s numbers can be trusted the same. An analyst or a reporter who decides to use a daily download from Facebook may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

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Delta Lab students present their research

Three Delta Lab students are presenting their research using Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) data during virtual sessions this summer. Two Delta Lab students, Brianna Mebane (’22) and Roshaan Siddiqui (‘22), presented their ongoing work and preliminary findings at Wesleyan University’s virtual Summer 2020 Research Poster Session on July 30, and Adina Gitomer (’20) will be presenting her work with Saray Shai at the Politics and Computational Social Science (PaCSS) and Political Networks (PolNet) virtual conference on August 13, 2020. Read a little more about their work below.

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