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Spin Control: Social media ads: Less negative, more polarizing than TV?


If you use Facebook, and about two-thirds of Americans do based on current estimates, you may have noticed plenty of political ads as the campaigns heated up last year.

If you share a home with others who use Facebook, you may have also noticed that the political ads they received were sometimes different from yours. As in different candidates, different issues or different appeals at different times.

If you are a real political geek who uses Facebook – I don’t have a hard number for that, but would guess that’s about 110% because some have multiple accounts – you might even have noticed that the ads you saw on television were different than the ones you were receiving on social media.

A group of political scientists, which includes Washington State University’s Travis Ridout, has gone beyond noticing such things to quantifying the use of Facebook by political campaigns.

Ridout joined with four colleagues – Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University, Michael Franz of Bowdoin College, Gregory Martin of Stanford University and Zachary Peskowitz of Emory University – for research published in the American Political Science Review.

Among their conclusions, based on data from the 2018 campaigns that included ads from more than 7,000 candidates – a combination of congressional, statewide and legislative campaigns – is that Facebook ads were less likely to be negative but were more likely to be ideologically polarizing.

They were less likely to be used to persuade voters about an issue and more likely to be used to mobilize voters to take action, such as attend a rally, recruit volunteers or donate to the campaign.

Social media ads can do something television can’t – link you to the donation page of a campaign website with the press of a finger or click of a mouse.

Because the ads are cheaper and can be more precisely targeted by ZIP codes and other viewer characteristics like gender and age, they were more likely to be used by candidates like legislators, whose districts are smaller than the footprint of a TV ad.

Because they are cheaper than TV ads, they can be used by candidates with less campaign money. Candidates with plenty of money used both, but with different strategies in mind.

Facebook ads weren’t as likely as television to be used for issues because the viewer’s attention span is so short, said Ridout, who is the Thomas S. Foley distinguished professor of government and public policy and the director of WSU’s School of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs.

“It’s a criticism we used to level at TV,” he said. But with television, a campaign could always count on some viewers being too lazy to change the channel and picking up the message. With social media platforms, ads can be dismissed with the swipe of a finger on a smart phone screen. “They really have to capture your attention in the first seconds.”

So television was more likely to be the platform for negative or “contrast” ads, because there’s more time for the message and because some viewers might be undecided or supporters of the opponent who can be swayed.

Research has shown that attack ads have a tendency to “demobilize” supporters of the candidate being attacked. But that effect can be temporary, which is why you’re more likely to see attack ads closer to the election.

Facebook ads can be targeted to voters who are likely to support the candidate, so they were more likely to be positive ads that reinforced the viewer’s opinion.

Campaigns can use Facebook ads to mention more issues, because they are relatively inexpensive, researchers found. But they usually don’t use them to take a stand on a controversial issue, but to highlight an issue that will mobilize their base to get them to the polls.

The researchers studied Facebook because it’s the largest social media platform in the country, was where the most ad money was spent and has a database of all political ads it ran in the 2018 election. Ridout expects more research for the 2020 election, possibly expanding to Google to make comparisons between platforms.

But the study of the 2018 election does raise questions about the role of social media in political campaigns, he said. Because campaigns tend to target supporters and reinforce their views on partisan issues, it may be strengthening the nation’s polarization, he said.

Social media ads may be giving relatively unknown candidates or those with less campaign money a better chance at the name recognition they need to be competitive. But how much of a factor it is in deciding an election is hard to measure and will have to wait for more research.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Ridout said. “What is its impact, at the end of the day, on the number of votes a candidate gets?”



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