Do Facebook Ad Campaigns Influence Voter Turnout?
Did Facebook Ads Help Transform the 2016 US Presidential Election, Like Many Did reported anecdotal? Katherine Haenschen, assistant professor of communication studies and political science at Northeastern, says the answer is complicated.
“To say that Donald Trump won through Facebook ads is painfully reductive and overly simplistic,” says Haenschen, whose new research shows that the platform’s micro-targeted ads can, in some cases, influence elections. “You can’t just run $1 million worth of Facebook ads and think voter turnout will magically skyrocket. It does not work like that.
Facebook ad campaigns offer political clients the ability to target and track specific audiences, much the same as business advertisers. As the last presidential election approached, political advertisers spent more than $264 million on Facebook Ads in Q3 2020, representing 3% of the platform’s estimated US revenue during that period.
Haenschen’s study focused on Texas voters during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Voters were targeted with Facebook ads on four issues: abortion rights, health care, immigration and gun control. Only one of these issues seemed to cause an increase in voter turnout, and only in congressional districts that were competitive.
Haenschen spoke with [email protected] about the types of elections and issues that can be influenced by Facebook ads. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why are discoveries important?
This is one of the first studies to show that Facebook ads can have an impact on voter turnout. Most research on Facebook ads has not found statistically significant effects. This study did.
When the right message is applied to receptive audiences, in areas where elections are “high visibility” – where there is more interest and excitement for the election – then ads work.
How did you conduct the study?
We targeted 850,000 people in Texas in 2018. Some people were in competitive congressional districts; other people were in non-competitive areas where everything on their ballot was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
I conducted this study in partnership with Texas Progressa [nonprofit] progressive mail organization – they have been around for a long time. They were already engaging people on issues of abortion rights, health care, immigration and gun control.
They wanted to run ads in which people were assigned to just one of these messages. We had different ad formats that ran for seven weeks with links to blog posts, podcasts, videos, all kinds of stuff. But you only saw messages about the one issue you were assigned to.
We found that the only message that had an effect was abortion rights – and the effects were concentrated in competing congressional districts. And, statistically, they were only effective on women.
What is your interest in this job?
I spent 10 years working on political campaigns before completing my doctorate. Much of my research is driven by taking things that political professionals do and testing them in the lab or in a randomized controlled trial to see what works, what doesn’t, and what deeper insights can be collect us?
For this study, the group approached me and said they were interested in determining if the work they were already doing was having an effect. They wanted to know: “If we change people’s Facebook feeds to have more policy-focused contact, will that change participation? And the answer is resounding… sometimes.
What’s the bottom line?
Overall, Facebook Ads don’t work. This study generated 2.5 million impressions. And overall, for all study participants, there was no effect on participation.
But Facebook ads increased engagement in competitive quarters, but with one message. Why this message?
Well, Texas has been an anti-abortion state. So this message clearly resonated with voters in a way that other messages did not.
The challenge for other groups looking to do issue-based advertising campaigns is to understand what it [provocative] problem is.
For media inquiriesplease contact Marirose Sartoretto at [email protected] or 617-373-5718.