Press release | Nov. 30, 2020

5.3bn political ads were shown on Facebook in the week before the US election

The fanfare around the company’s ban on new political ads did not prevent over $100 million dollars being spent on political ads that recycled old content or were re-targeted to new people

Facebook’s ban on new political ads ahead of the US elections was touted as a way for the platform to protect US democracy. New analysis published by Global Witness today shows that the policy was little more than a token effort.

In a move widely described in the media as an ‘ad ban’ and an ‘ad blackout’ the platform decided to accept no new political or issue ads during the final week of the campaign, though existing ads were allowed to be re-targeted and re-financed.

Global Witness’s analysis of the ads that were live throughout the ban found that political ads were shown 5.3 billion times in the US between 28 October and 3 November, 5% more than the number of times they were shown in the previous week. Five billion ad impressions is enough for every adult in the US to have been shown political adverts 20 times in the week before the election. Facebook took $110 million for showing political ads in the week before the election, only 4% less than they did before the new policy came into effect. [1]

In a statement to Global Witness, a spokesperson for Facebook said that their policy helped combat misinformation by ensuring that the political ads library was populated in advance of the election, allowing for scrutiny. [2]

Commenting on the research findings, Naomi Hirst, Head of the Digital Threats Campaign at Global Witness, said:

“In an attempt to be seen to be doing something to address its concerning and outsized role in the US presidential election, Facebook announced a measure that looked like it was putting its money where its mouth was - at first glance. But making the hundreds of thousands of political adverts shown during the pre-election week available through an Ad Library represents a token effort.”

She continued,

“Transparency is just a starting point - devolving responsibility to journalists and civil society to scrutinise problematic ad content is plainly insufficient. There are so many political ads this is effectively an impossible job - even in the US where the elections have been closely watched, let alone in other countries. Moreover, Facebook’s ad library doesn’t allow civil society to see how ads were micro-targeted, preventing anyone from outside the platform from knowing whether an ad was targeted in a polarising or discriminatory way.”

“Companies that make millions of dollars from political advertising aren’t the ones we should be looking to for how to solve the problems of disinformation and polarisation; this is a political problem that requires a political solution that creates a level playing field for all platforms. We need governments to step in to hold the Tech Giants to account.”

/ ENDS

Contacts

Notes to editor:

1. Given that all the figures are estimates, we have cited them to two significant figures. Results:

  • We estimate that there were 5.3 billion impressions of political ads on Facebook in the US in the week before the election while the ban on new ads was in place.  We estimate that there were 5.0 billion impressions of political ads on Facebook in the US before the new ad ban policy was imposed.
  • We estimate that there was $110 million spent on political ads on Facebook in the US in the week before the election while the ban on new ads was in place.  We estimate that there was $120 million spent on political ads on Facebook in the US before the new ad ban policy was imposed.

2. The full response of Facebook’s spokesperson was: “Requiring all political ads to be submitted 10 days before the election ensured our political ads library was fully populated in advance — and that all the ads would be available for scrutiny. This was an important measure to combat misinformation and it helped. On Election Day, our third party fact-checking partners in the U.S. set a new record for new fact checks in a single day. Here is Mark’s post from Sept 3 announcing the purpose of the transparency period https://www.alpha.facebook.com/4/posts/10112270823363411/?d=n”