Presidential campaigns set new records for social media ad spending

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have set new spending records for political ads on social media this election.
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have set new spending records for political ads on social media this election.

Both candidates have used a flurry of political ads throughout their campaigns to reach voters directly on platforms like Facebook.

Between January 2019 and Oct, 24, 2020, Eyewitness News found both candidates had spent more individually on Facebook ads than Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent combined during the 2016 election.

In that timeframe, Trump's campaign had spent around $107 million on Facebook ads, and Biden's campaign had spent slightly over $94 million.

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ABC7 investigative reporter Danielle Leigh talks to USC Annenberg Digital Social Media Professor Karen North about political ads on social media.



By contrast in 2016, both candidates spent $81 million collectively, according to statements from Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch during a 2017 U.S. House Intelligence Committee hearing.

In just the two days following the final presidential debate on Oct. 22, Eyewitness News found Biden's campaign spent nearly $2.7 million, and Trump's campaign spent around $1.4 million.

"No one in the digital world is surprised to see increasing focus going to digital ads," said USC Annenberg Digital Social Media Professor Karen North. "Unlike traditional media, digital allows you to target audiences directly. The real, huge change with social media versus traditional media is that it makes us feel like we have a personal connection with somebody."


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The ads from candidates are sponsored and can populate in Facebook users' feeds much like a post from a friend. Digital advertising also allows political campaigns to specifically pick who to target and write messages that directly speak to that audience, North says.

"You can say you want to send this message to soccer moms and a different message to swim team moms," North said. "It feels like they are whispering in my ear. It feels like they are speaking to me directly."

The 2020 Campaign Tracker from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a communications company, analyzed what type of voter each candidate has been targeting in social media ads.

By evaluating ads from Sept. 26 to Oct. 17, the tracker showed Biden had targeted women about 59.4% of the time and men about 39.8% of the time.

Biden also tended to favor targeting voters 44 years old and younger.


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By contrast, the tracker showed Trump had slightly favored male voters, targeting men 49.8% of the time and had also targeted older voters, people 45 years old and older about 67.4% of the time.

North said social media advertising allows candidates to know exactly what kind of voter they are reaching and craft messages specific to their interests, leaving voters more vulnerable to persuasion.

"People unfortunately don't realize how vulnerable they are to being manipulated," North said. "It's very hard to think about a time when we come back to people hear the news, think about the news, and talk to people, instead of finding out about the news from someone who is an opinion leader first. And so if that is our future, we need to educate people that the news you are reading may be an opinion and not news."

It's too soon to tell what impact social media advertising has had on this election, but North said what is clear is how important it is for voters to independently research issues and candidates, and think about both what they are voting for and what they are voting against rather than relying completely on content found in social media for information.


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