Newspaper article

Not Just Russians: Minnesota’s Political Campaigns Are Spending a Ton on Facebook and Google to Influence Your Vote, Too

Newspaper article

Not Just Russians: Minnesota’s Political Campaigns Are Spending a Ton on Facebook and Google to Influence Your Vote, Too

Article excerpt

If you think your Facebook news feed is more clogged with political ads than ever this year, it’s not just you: the 2018 election is shaping up as the biggest one yet for digital political communication, with campaigns, super PACs, and outside groups spending increasingly more money to blanket the internet and social media with ads.

The ads that are popping up all over your computer, tablet and phone screens are taking more forms than ever, too, from short clips to longer videos made for the web, and shareable reminders to donate money to ominous attacks on an opponent.

So far in the 2018 cycle, Minnesota’s competitive federal candidates, along with the outside groups that back them, are making significant investments in those online ads: DFL Sen. Tina Smith’s campaign, for example, has spent $260,000 on contracts with one California firm for digital consulting and advertising, and has put some 900 ads on Facebook over the past few months.

Outside groups, like the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC that backs up Republicans, are spending record amounts of money — $20 million, according to the group — on digital ads in battleground U.S. House districts, including several in Minnesota.

It’s likely that Minnesota voters will hear from more candidates and groups, and on more online platforms, this year than in any election before it. Campaign operatives and political media experts say that online ads — once looked down upon as a waste of time and money compared to TV — are now an unavoidable investment for any campaign that hopes to have a shot at victory.

Thanks to improved transparency rules, in 2018, it’s easier to observe just how precisely campaigns are using online ads to shape narratives and voter attitudes — right down to the ad you saw scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago before going to bed.

Casting a wider ’net

Digital ads have been on the rise in politics in the last few election cycles — particularly in 2016, when the campaign of Donald Trump invested significant resources in the low-cost medium to target voters with their campaign message.

That year, however, online platforms were abused, with shadowy foreign entities taking advantage of lax disclosure rules and deploying thousands of digital ads to sway voters, and tech marketing firms taking advantage of user data to target specific people with particular ads. Those developments prompted Facebook, Google and others to make it easier for the public to see who runs political ads online, who they target, and how much they cost.

While that picture isn’t exact — on Google and Facebook, for example, information about an ad reveals a range for how much it cost instead of an exact amount — it is nevertheless clearer to the public who is paying for online ads, and who they are trying to reach with them.

The 2018 midterms may be a breakthrough for digital ad usage in state and district-level races, as hundreds of congressional campaigns increasingly turn to the medium. Last year, market research firm Borrell Associates estimated that digital advertising will hit a record high in these midterms, projecting expenditures to surpass $1.8 billion for the first time ever.

In 2014, the last midterm election cycle, campaigns and outside groups spent less than one percent of their advertising budgets on digital ads; in 2018, that figure is projected to jump to 22 percent.

Google offers a searchable database on political ads that compiles information about which groups are paying for political ads on its platform. It reports that, so far, political entities have spent just over $500,000 on digital ads in Minnesota, which is much less than Florida, where a nation-leading $2.5 million has been spent, but is on par with states like New York and New Jersey.

The Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes political ads, issued a report on September 13 that found digital spending taking up an increasingly larger share of overall ad spending in 14 of the most competitive U. …

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