Five things you can learn from Ad Observatory about digital political advertising

Getting started with insights on political messaging across Facebook and Instagram

Launched in August 2022 by NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy, the updated version of Ad Observatory (AdObservatory.org) is a public, searchable dashboard to find insights on digital political advertising across Meta properties.

Here’s a quick primer on the types of information available with a few mouse clicks. Note: Ad Observatory is now available in Spanish. The site will automatically appear in Spanish or English depending on your browser settings; you can also toggle between English and Spanish versions.

1) Search topics such as “immigration,” “abortion,” and “guns” to find the top digital advertisers emphasizing these themes, as well as other insights.

Perhaps you’re interested in seeing how advertisers are spending on ads about immigration, whether that spending is going up and down, and what proportion of spending is by left-leaning and right-leaning groups. Not only that, you want all the ads about immigration, even if they don’t mention that word — immigration — but instead use an alternate term or phrase, such as “caravan” or “secure our border” or “sanctuary city.”

In consultation with subject experts, C4D researchers have developed “topic models” that will return more comprehensive results than a simple search on the keyword “immigration.” They’ve also categorized spenders by “left” and “right” so you can compare their spending week by week. Here we see that over the three-month period selected, when searching the topic, “immigration,” right-leaning advertisers outspent left-leaning advertisers on Facebook and Instagram. (For more details, see methodology.)

Right-leaning advertisers outspent left-leaning advertisers on the topic “immigration” over most of the time period selected.
The top spender on the topic “immigration” over the time period selected was the right-leaning media organization PragerU — by a lot. Switch to “table view” to get the exact figures.

2) Find insights on Spanish-language ads

Spanish-language political advertising and misinformation was a big concern in the 2020 elections, With Ad Observatory, you can filter by language to return results showing insights on Spanish-language advertising.

Select “Spanish” for a specific topic, such as “abortion,” and find insights for Spanish-language advertising.

3) Elections! Get insights on digital advertising by federal candidates.

Searching by election will return results showing how federal candidates are spending advertising dollars. Compare and contrast how much candidates are spending compared to each other, and how they are focusing their strategies.

Sample data visualizations for Colorado U.S. Senate race.

4) Close up by region: who is running ads in Arizona, Florida, and other places

Search by region to see top advertisers in a particular place. See top sponsors chart, as well as other data visualizations showing how digital advertisers are focusing strategy in a particular state or region.

Sample data visualization for Florida regional ad spending.

5) Getting more advanced: Use boolean terms on keyword searches for complex searches.

With Ad Observatory, it’s also possible to search by keyword and see similar visualizations as above. For example, a search on keyword “immigration” will return only ads that actually contain that word. It’s also possible to construct more complex searches using boolean search terms. For example, the search on keywords “Votar | votación” returns results containing words “Votar” OR “Votación.“(See tips on constructing boolean searches in Ad Observatory methodology.”)

The search on keywords “Votar | votación” returns results containing words “Votar” OR “Votación.

Ad Observatory methodology

C4D collects data from a variety of sources and applies machine learning, topic modeling, and other types of tools to develop messaging insights on Ad Observatory. Data sources include:

The Meta Ad Library contains a comprehensive, searchable collection of ads running across Meta technologies. Ads about “social issues, elections or politics,” or political ads can be identified because they include information about who paid for the ad in a “Paid for by” disclaimer. See Meta’s documentation of its definition of these ads.

Meta Ad Library Reports contain weekly summary information about social issues, elections, and politics ads across its sites.

C4D researchers provide analysis and modeling of these data, so Ad Observatory users can see patterns in digital advertising: who is spending money on ads, what topics they are focusing on, what types of ads they are running (donate, buy, show up, etc.), types of ads, and spending on ads.

Click here to learn more about Ad Observatory.

For more details, see our methodology.

Still have questions? Contact us at info@cybersecurityfordemocracy.org.

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About Cybersecurity for Democracy

Cybersecurity for Democracy is a research-based, nonpartisan, and independent effort to expose online threats to our social fabric — and recommend how to counter them. It is a part of the Center for Cybersecurity at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

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