what we know about online ads in federal elections

We’re halfway through the federal election campaign and you’ve probably seen a significant amount of political advertising by now, much of it online.

Online political advertising is more ubiquitous than its analog predecessors, can cost less (per individual ad), deploy faster, and can be micro-targeted to specific audiences. Targeting can target protected social categories such as race and gender, and has been used to amplify misinformation and disinformation.

Unlike billboards or TV ads that can be seen widely, targeted ads can be invisible beyond their target audience. Researchers like us are trying to get online advertising under control through projects like the Australian Ad Observatory.

Here’s what we know so far about the state of online advertising in federal elections.

Dashboards

The big dogs in the world of online advertising are Meta and Google. Meta allows advertising on its products, including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. Google allows ads in its search products, YouTube and on Android.

Both companies have ad transparency dashboards. (Here is the one from Meta and the one from Google.)



Read more: Facebook ads allowed discrimination based on gender, race and age. We need to know how ‘dark ads’ affect Australians


Dashboards detail which ads are running, who is running them, and some basic aggregate targeting data by geography, gender, and age.

For example, we can see that the Australian Election Commission spent about $383,000 on Facebook advertising in the last month, largely promoting election-related facts and voter registration information.

Meta’s Ads Transparency Dashboard displays information about ad spend and targeting.
Meta Ads Library

However, these tools are quite basic and don’t offer full insight into how ads are targeted, nor insight into trends and patterns. To fill the void, researchers and journalists have built their own.

For Facebook, we partnered with colleagues at Ryerson University in Canada to expand their PoliDashboard to Australia. Colleagues from the University of Queensland have also released an excellent Facebook ad spend tracker.

For Google, The Guardian Australia published data visualizations extending the Google Transparency Dashboard with more useful data aggregation and geovisual elements.

So what have we seen so far in this campaign?

Focus on Facebook

By analyzing spending data from April 1, 2022, we can already see differences in how some parties strategically buy ads on platforms like Facebook.

In the lower house, the traditional liberal bastion of Kooyong distinguished itself early on. Polls suggest the incumbent, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, is under threat from independent ‘teal’ Dr. Monique Ryan.



Read more: View from The Hill: Warring in Coalition over 2050 target brings gold dust for ‘teals’


Since the beginning of April, Frydenberg has spent about $80,000 on Facebook advertising at his own headquarters, while Ryan has spent about $41,000. In total, more than twice as much was spent in Kooyong as in the next highest spending seats of Maribyrnong, North Sydney and Wentworth.

In the senate, Queensland has so far attracted the most spending with around $110,000. Here, a rogues gallery of former LNPs and other far-right candidates are jostling for one of two seats likely to be up for grabs.

Beyond Facebook

We also saw significant spending by political parties and registered organizations on Google Ads. The total amount is $17.7 million as of November 15, 2021, of which United Australia Party ads account for $15 million, including many YouTube ads.

Over the past two years, Google has also introduced more advertising products and services in Android mobile games.

Ads in this gaming ecosystem are very difficult to track. Google’s Transparency Dashboard does not include data that allows us to determine which ads appear in this specific ecosystem. However, users of our Ad Observatory have sent us photos and screenshots of UAP ads appearing in their mobile games. It looks like some of that $15 million ends up in in-game mobile advertising.

Perhaps the most creative use of online advertising to date has come from Stephen Bates, the Greens candidate in Brisbane. Bates posted a series of ads on Grindr, a social networking and dating app for gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, as well as men who have sex with men.

Bates’ tongue-in-cheek ads have slogans like ‘Spice up Canberra with a third party’ and ‘The best parliaments are hanging’. Unlike other sometimes cringe-worthy attempts by politicians to appeal to specific communities, Bates leaned into his own identity as an openly gay candidate by selecting this platform and developing advertisements using Grindr’s platform-specific vernacular.

Green party political advertisement.  Stephen Bates, Greens candidate for Brisbane, stands next to the slogan which reads
In Brisbane, Greens candidate Stephen Bates took out cheeky adverts on Grindr.
Screenshot, Author provided

What about Twitter, TikTok and other major platforms?

Meanwhile, if you spend your time on Twitter or TikTok, you won’t see any political ads during this campaign.

Why not? It’s complicated, but it goes back mainly to the Cambridge Analytica scandal of the mid-2010s, in which the personal profile data of more than 50 million Facebook users was hijacked from the platform and used to create a tool. profiling which was then exploited for political purposes.

Large-scale online micro-targeting using this tool may have played a significant role in the success of Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign in 2016 and the Brexit “leave” campaign in the same year.

These events have propelled online political advertising into the limelight. In its wake, lawmakers and civil society groups around the world have steadily stepped up pressure on platforms regarding online political advertising.



Read more: Twitter bans political ads – but the real battle for democracy is with Facebook and Google


In response, Twitter and TikTok decided that political ads weren’t worth it and banned them altogether.

Facebook instead shut down access to third-party data collection, which had the side effect of making authentic and ethical scientific research more difficult.

Does it all work, though?

Online political advertising is only part of an overall campaign, but it can be used to tip the balance in favor of a party.

In other countries, online advertising may aim to encourage supporters to vote and discourage opponents. However, compulsory voting in Australia means campaigns are likely to focus on persuading a relatively small number of swing voters. This means that specific hotly contested seats (like Kooyong) can play an amplified role in our elections.

One thing to watch in this election and beyond are the growing calls for truth in political advertising. Online election advertising will only intensify, so we will need ways to crack down on misinformation and disinformation.



Read more: Few restrictions, no spending limits and almost no controls: welcome to political advertising in Australia


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