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 precisely targeted by ZIP codes and 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.
Facebook ads weren’t as likely as TV to be used for issues because the viewer’s attention span is so short, said Ridout, 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 TV, a campaign could always count on some viewers being too lazy to change the channel. With social media platforms, ads can be dismissed with the swipe of a finger on a screen. “They really have to capture your attention.”
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.
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.
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?”