It’s official: President Trump is the single biggest political advertiser on Facebook. Mr. Trump and his political action committee spent $274,000 on ads on the social network since early May, outpacing the second-biggest spender, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care. Planned Parenthood spent just over $188,000 on Facebook ads over the same period. The ads bought by Mr. Trump and his PAC were also seen the most by Facebook’s users, having been viewed by at least 37 million people since May. That compared with 24 million people who saw the second-most viewed group of political ads, which were also from Planned Parenthood.
These findings were laid out in a new study by a group of researchers from New York University, who used Facebook’s own data to arrive at the results. Facebook in May began an archive of political ads, which is a publicly searchable database that catalogs the ads and identifies which groups or individuals paid for them. Facebook hopes the database will include any ad that has political content and that was aimed at Americans. The researchers conducted their study by scraping all of that raw data.
Their work provides one of the most comprehensive pictures so far of who is placing political ads on the world’s biggest social network and how much they are spending ahead of the midterm elections in November. Reaching voters through social media has become one of the most effective ways to get a message out, but up until now, the transparency around the practice has been limited. That previously allowed operatives from Russia to target divisive political ads at the American electorate in 2016.
Facebook now requires buyers of political ads on its network to be verified as United States citizens or permanent residents, to cut down on foreign interference. That means Facebook’s political ad archive largely provides a portrait of domestic activity, spotlighting both the digital ad buying of Democratic and Republican elected officials and political candidates, as well as nonprofit organizations, for-profit groups and PACs. The archive also shows how much these ads were actually consumed by the social network’s users.