How journalists use NYU Ad Observatory to report on digital political advertising in elections

Story templates and examples for getting started on investigating paid advertising campaigns on Facebook & Instagram

As the midterms elections grow closer, the volume of digital political ads will increase by magnitudes–one recent estimate predicts that $1.3 billion will be spent on Google and Facebook alone in the midterm elections. In the absence of consistent, mandated transparency for advertising on digital platforms, journalists charged with making sense of this flood of money for their audiences can turn to Ad Observatory, a free, public dashboard, developed by NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy (C4D) to find insights on political ad spending on Facebook and Instagram.

First launched in 2020, and relaunched with improvements in August 2022, Ad Observatory is sourced from Meta Ad Library and the Meta Ad Library Reports. C4D researchers then apply machine learning, topic modeling, and other types of tools to develop messaging insights on Ad Observatory. Read more about our methodology here.

Ad Observatory has already been used by dozens of journalists. Here are some examples of what they’ve done with it:

Researching candidates’ political advertising in elections

Local journalists used Ad Observatory in 2020 to report who was behind the digital ads targeting voters in Florida, Utah, New Jersey, North Carolina and more. Most of these journalists reported on the total spent on Facebook political ads by candidates and organizations. Some also incorporated information from Ad Observatory on what topics candidates were focusing on.

Getting started:

Use the “region” search (example: Florida) to find data visualizations of Facebook advertisers in your area. The “elections” search (example: Fetterman vs. Oz in PA U.S. Senate race) will return results on candidates in U.S. Senate and House races.

Senate candidate Fetterman is not only outspending Oz on Facebook, but talking about more diverse topics in his ads.

Sleuthing politicians’ political ambitions

Curious about Ron DeSantis’ political advertising on Facebook, Reuters reporters Jason Lange and Alexandra Ulmer dug into Ad Observatory data, comparing patterns in spending by the GOP Florida governor in the first quarter of 2022 versus the second quarter. What they found was telling:

“In the first three months of this year, political ads sent through DeSantis’ Facebook and Instagram pages were overwhelmingly concentrated in Florida, as one would expect from a man running for office in the state.

“But by the April-June period, they were spread roughly evenly between Florida and the rest of the country, according to a Reuters analysis of regional spending data for social media ads compiled by [Ad Observatory]…”

This change in regional spending signaled DeSantis’ ambitions to run for president in 2024:

“There are signs that DeSantis could be preparing for a White House run even as he campaigns for another term as governor in November’s midterm elections.”

Getting started:

Search on sponsor to find advertising by a candidate or organization, changing date range to compare periods. Example: Illinois governor JB Pritzker, a Democrat mentioned as a potential contender in 2024 presidential race.

Currently Pritzer’s Facebook ad spending is restricted to his home state of Illinois.

What topics are political advertisers emphasizing?

In May 2022, following the leak of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion, it stood to reason that advertisers might increase their paid messaging on the topic on Facebook and Instagram. Axios reporter Lachlan Markay dug in, using a beta version of Ad Observatory as a starting point to explore the broad issue of abortion, via topic modeling developed by C4D researchers. He found not only had advertising on the topic increased exponentially, but also that spending was dominated by pro-abortion rights groups.

Axios created this chart based on data from AdObservatory.org.

Getting started:

Search on topic to find data visualizations of spending on that issue. Example: search on economy. Curious who the top Spanish-level advertisers are on a given topic? Try filtering for Spanish-language results.

More examples from journalists using Ad Observatory

These are just a few ideas for how journalists use Ad Observatory to explore trends and follow leads. For more ideas, check out:

Customized trainings available

Interested in setting up a free training for your newsroom or organization? Contact info@cybersecurityfordemocracy.org.

About NYU 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.

Would you like more information on our work? Visit Cybersecurity for Democracy online and see how tools, data, investigations, and analysis are fueling efforts toward platform accountability. You can:

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Nancy Watzman

Nancy Watzman

Nancy Watzman is director of Lynx LLC, lynxco.org. She is former director, Colorado Media Project; outreach editor, Knight Comm on Trust, Media & Democracy.