Press release | Oct. 30, 2020

New polling in key battleground states suggests voters are uneasy about targeted online political ads

Half of US voters who are regular social media users in three key swing states think the use of targeted political ads is detrimental to US democracy

New polling, carried out by YouGov on behalf of Global Witness, in three key US swing States (Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) amongst regular social media users indicates that nearly seven in ten (68%) think online advertisers should ensure political ads are viewable by everyone. Just 15% think these ads should be targeted and only made available to certain groups. It also suggests the majority of those who identify with both main parties (68% Democrat and 63% Republican) would support a ban on online political ads that are targeted at them. 

The new data shows that around 1 in 2 (54%) people have seen ads on their social media feeds questioning the validity of the US election in the last month or longer, and of this, 19% say they could ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ identify who was funding those ads.

Overall, 50% of respondents see targeted political ads hindering US democracy.

With just 4 days to go until the election, the digital battleground has been key for Democrats and Republicans alike, with both spending millions to target potential swing voters and aid their efforts to get out the vote. In the last quarter, the combined sum spent on political ads in the US on the presidential contest, congressional and gubernatorial races and amongst third-party groups advocating for candidates or specific causes topped $264 million on Facebook alone. The presidential campaigns were the biggest spenders, with the Trump campaign funding $48.7 million of Facebook ads, compared to Biden’s $45.4 million. In 2016, the Trump campaign reportedly spent over $44 million between June and November, with Clinton spending only $28 million.

The polling released today suggests voters want targeting restrictions and more transparency for political ads on social media. This is especially important for ads that are more likely to stir up division or cement prejudice by using micro-targeting (advertising delivered to a niche audience based on personal data). 

The data also shows:

  • 61% of respondents thought social media companies should do more to provide information on how online advertising has been targeted, and 68% believed political ads should be viewable by anyone, rather than targeted at specific groups;
  • 31% said they would like to reduce the time they spend on social media. Of those, a majority (52%) cited false information as one of the reasons for cutting down;
  • The majority of battleground voters in WI, PA, and OH  believed they had seen advertising on social media that had been targeted at them because of their gender, location, age, race, previous voting record and personal data provided to social media sites.

There were particular concerns about targeting based on:

  • Race (71% felt this should not be allowed);
  • Who you voted for at the last election (75% felt this should not be allowed);
  • Income (83% felt this should not be allowed);
  • Sexuality (80% felt this should not be allowed)
  • And general online behaviour such as. browsing history, previous purchases etc. (82% felt this should not be allowed)

Earlier this year, Global Witness launched a campaign to protect democracy and stop the spread of hate and disinformation online by supporting new laws to hold Big Tech to account. 

In response to the findings from today’s polling, Head of the Digital Threats to Democracy campaign at Global Witness, Ava Lee, said:

“Big Tech has pervaded our lives to an astonishing degree. Facebook has 2.7 billion monthly active users, and over 85% of people using search engines go through Google. These platforms are the new public realms, where news is shared, friendships are formed and political movements rise and fall.

“But there is far too little regulation over how these platforms operate – and nowhere is this more true than in the case of political ads, where legislation to govern how political campaigns engage with voters has simply not kept pace with new technology.

“The current situation cannot continue. It is undermining democracy, embedding division, and has the potential to disenfranchise swathes of the population. It is time for governments to regulate Big Tech and, as a starting point, ban the use of micro-targeting for political advertising.

“The truth matters. Democracy matters. No one can see the long queues outside polling stations across the US and not want to make every effort to ensure the voice of all Americans can be heard equally in this election. It’s time to end the Wild West of political campaigning on digital platforms and start moving towards a world where social media companies are forced to operate to higher transparency standards, where hate and discrimination is not able to flourish unchecked and where power cannot be bought through targeted ads and the proliferation of misleading information.”

Notes to editor:

Methodology: See attached pdf for full methodology

Full stats: Please contact [email protected] for the full stats

Political ads:

Only some of the Big Tech companies allow for political ads – specifically Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Google, YouTube (owned by Google), and Snapchat. Facebook is the dominant player in terms of political ads by quite a wide margin. Since November 2019, Google has banned political ads from being targeted using viewers’ online behaviours (though allows targeting by age, gender, geography and context they appear in). Twitter banned political ads all together in October 2019.