Spending on 2020 Spanish-language political ads on Meta lagged behind English-language ads

More complex topic modeling and deeper research is needed on how Spanish-speakers are targeted with misinformation

By Bruno Coelho and Damon McCoy

During the 2020 U.S. elections, public concern grew about misleading political ads and other types of digital misinformation targeting Spanish-speaking audiences, from false claims that then-candidate President Joe Biden is a socialist to assertions that antifa was behind the January 6 Capitol attacks. However, beyond this anecdotal evidence, not much is known about the extent of Spanish-language political advertising on digital platforms and what vulnerabilities might exacerbate the flow of misinformation. A greater understanding of this content is required in order to develop effective systemic interventions against Spanish-language misinformation online.

As a first step toward understanding misinformation aimed at Spanish-speakers, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of all Spanish-language 2020 political advertising across Meta properties–primarily Facebook and Instagram. We examined a set of political ads that ran on the platform in 2020, filtering for Spanish and English text, which together accounted for 99.77% of all spending on political advertising in 2020. For the resulting set of 4.7 million ads run by 117,000 advertisers, we analyzed the spending, impressions, type of ad, and partisan lean of advertisers. Note: we use the term “political” ads to refer to ads that are disclosed in the Meta Ad Library as ads about “social issues, elections or politics.”

Our findings:

  • We estimate that spending per Spanish speaker on Spanish-language ads was nearly five times less (18%) than spending per English speaker on English-language ads. Overall, Spanish-language ads and ads containing both Spanish and English-language text accounted for just 2.7% of all political advertising spending on Meta.

This analysis reveals that in the realm of paid political advertising on Meta, we estimate that only a small proportion was spent on Spanish-language advertising. Furthermore, the estimated top Spanish-language advertisers were government and civic organizations, largely spending on public education campaigns around the U.S. Census and public health. However, this does not mean that Spanish speakers are less vulnerable to misinformation on Facebook and Instagram. Instead, it provides a roadmap for more research to better understand the problem.

First, the lack of spending on Spanish-language ads creates an opening for bad actors, who could easily increase the amount of misinformation targeted at Spanish speakers. On the other hand, it also provides an opportunity for trustworthy, factual sources to provide more trustworthy information, such as fact checking and “pre-bunking” to fill information voids. This is consistent with recommendations based on polling data from Equis Research and Equis Labs.

Second, there is still much we don’t know about how Spanish-speakers are targeted on Facebook and Instagram. Language is just one metric. We have very little information on how ads are targeted to particular demographics and audiences; for example, how English-language ads, or ads containing both Spanish and English, are seen by Spanish speaking or bilingual audiences. Our team is now working on implementing a multilingual topic modeling approach to digital political advertising data. We are using machine learning techniques to conduct more complex analyses of how advertisers are communicating with Spanish-speaking audiences, and are incorporating those models into Ad Observatory, our free, public dashboard, to help researchers and journalists investigate trends in political advertising.

Top spending 2020 English-language and Spanish-language political advertisers

Advertisers in italics appear in both tables. Spending and impressions are midpoint estimates of ranges provided by Meta.
Advertisers in italics appear in both tables. Spending and impressions are midpoint estimates of ranges provided by Meta.

Focus for Spanish-language political advertisers

Ads by estimated top-spending Spanish-language political advertisers on Meta came largely from non-political, government-related agencies, who were focusing on such topics as the 2020 U.S. Census and the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau was the biggest Spanish-language political advertiser in 2020, dedicating over a quarter (27.1%) of their Meta political advertising budget to the Spanish-language advertisements.

WhatsApp and Facebook (or “Facebook App” as it often appears in the Meta Ad Library), both pages owned and operated by its parent company Meta, also appeared as top spenders on Spanish-language political ads. WhatsApp dedicated more than half of its spending on political ads on Meta to Spanish-language ads, higher than any other advertiser among the top ten Spanish-language advertisers. These ads largely focused on election information, directing viewers to the Facebook Voting Information Center or offering information in partnership with non-profit organizations such as vote.org.

Other top Spanish-language advertisers included the California Department of Public Health and the World Health Organization (WHO), which largely focused on providing information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Examples of ads by top spending 2020 Spanish-language political advertisers on Meta.

Next steps for research on Spanish-language political advertising

For the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, C4D researchers are using machine learning techniques to better understand how advertisers are communicating with Spanish-speaking audiences, and will experiment with incorporating these models into Ad Observatory. In addition, our Ad Observer tool, which gives people a way to safely share ads they are served on Meta, is also available in Spanish.

C4D researchers develop topics by classifying ads based on their text content as well as consulting subject area and language experts. Topics such as “immigration” and “guns” contain keywords–in both English and Spanish–associated with that topic. The feature is designed to showcase the range of advertising content included within a single topic.

In the coming weeks, we will be testing a new methodology, using existing sets of ads with topics assigned to recognize and find similar patterns of words, and represent these patterns numerically via vectors. In theory, ad text in any language would show similar patterns or vectors. We will test the accuracy of this new approach to topic assignment, with the goal of making it possible to compare and contrast ads across different languages.

Screenshot from Ad Observatory.
Screenshot from Spanish version of Ad Observer.

A note on sources: The Meta Ad Library contains a 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.

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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Cybersecurity for Democracy

Cybersecurity for Democracy is a research-based effort to expose online threats to our social fabric. We are part of the Center for Cybersecurity at NYU.