An UC3M study analyses the impact of targeted Facebook advertising on the elections


Research from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M), the University of Warwick and ETH Zurich has studied the effectiveness of micro-targeted political advertising on social media such as Facebook in the United States. The research concludes that it may have increased the number of Donald Trump voters by ten per cent in the 2016 presidential elections.

Republican Donald Trump’s team spent 44 million dollars on Facebook, with 175,000 different adverts during the 2016 election campaign, compared to a spend of 28 million dollars by Democrat Hilary Clinton.

In order to carry out these campaigns, the messages are sent out to Facebook users based on various factors, such as their gender, location or political allegiance. What has been proven is that this micro-targeted advertising on social media was highly effective in persuading undecided voters to support Trump as well as in convincing Republican supporters to turn out on polling day.

In particular, it increased the probability that a non-aligned voter would decide to vote for candidate Trump by at least five percentage points, according to the results of the study. On the other hand, “the results show that Clinton did not manage to increase support among her potential natural voters nor boost their participation in the elections. Unfortunately, we do not have the necessary data to be able to understand why it worked for Trump and not for Clinton”, two of the authors of the paper point out, Ángel and Rubén Cuevas, researchers from the UC3M Telematics Engineering department. This disparity shows there are other variables to consider in addition to the presence of social media.

In Trump’s case, the impact of the campaign was strongest among voters who used Facebook regularly, those who used this social media as their main source of news and among voters without university or college-level education. Specifically, political micro-targeting was particularly effective when based on ideology, gender or educational level, much less so when based on race or age. “Our results show that learning about politics on Facebook does not make voters more informed, but does make them less likely to change their voting choice, which is very in line with the concept of political polarisation. This effect is particularly visible among men, Republican voters and people with a low level of education”, confirms one of the authors of the paper, Federica Libernini, from the ETH Zurich department of Economy, Technology and Business Management.

The results of this study have recently been presented at various international conferences, such as the Workshop on Political Economy held in October at the Universidad Libre de Bozen-Bolzano (Italy). “This paper contributes to an incipient body of literature that is using Facebook data, in a completely privacy-preserving manner, as a novel and highly valuable data source to address important socio-economic questions”, add Ángel and Rubén Cuevas.

Further information about the study is available here.

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