Did Facebook ads help turn the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as many have reported anecdotally? Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communication studies and political science at Northeastern, says the answer is complicated. “To say Donald Trump won because of Facebook ads is painfully reductive and overly simplistic,” says Haenschen, whose new research shows that the platform’s microtargeted ads can, in certain instances, influence elections. “You can’t just run $1 million in Facebook ads and think that voter turnout is going to magically skyrocket. It doesn’t work that way.”
Facebook ad campaigns offer political clients the ability to target and track specific audiences, in much the same way as corporate advertisers do. In the run-up to the last presidential election, political advertisers spent upwards of $264 million on Facebook ads in the third quarter of 2020—accounting for 3% of the platform’s estimated U.S. revenue in that span. Haenschen’s study focused on Texas voters during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. The voters were targeted with Facebook ads on four issues: abortion rights, health care, immigration, and gun control. Only one of those issues appeared to elicit an increase in voter turnout—and only then in congressional districts that were competitive.