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ISU Class Digs Into Social Media Ads In 13th District Campaign

Facebook ads screenshot
Facebook Ad Library
A few of the recent Facebook ads run by the campaigns.

If you want a sense of just how important the fight is for the 13th Congressional District, look no further than the ads in your own Facebook feed.

The Rodney Davis and Betsy Dirksen Londrigan campaigns have spent a few hundred thousand dollars already on Facebook ads, plus thousands more spent by outside groups like real estate agents, unions, health care advocacy groups, national political organizations, and others.

Those ads—and the gobs of data they produce—were under the microscope this semester in an Honors class at Illinois State University, focused on social media and elections.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of how much advertising happens on Facebook, especially politically,” said Nate Carpenter, director of convergent media in ISU’s School of Communication and head of its Social Media Analytics Command Center (SMACC). He leads the class, along with Steve Hunt and Lance Lippert from the school.

They’ve downloaded data in bulk from the Facebook Ad Library, launched as a gesture of transparency amid criticism about the social media company’s outsized role in U.S. elections.

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Credit Nate Carpenter / Illinois State University
Illinois State University
The average percentage breakdown for each age/gender group for all of the ads produced by each campaign's Facebook page in 2020.

Facebook’s data only suggests a range of money spent on ads. Londrigan’s campaign has spent as much as $196,000 on Facebook ads this year, and Davis’ campaign has spent as much as $140,000, according to analysis from the ISU team. And that’s separate from all the spending by outside groups that also can  target voters in the 13th District just like the candidates can.

Davis and Londrigan first faced each other in 2018, when Davis won by just 2,000 votes in one of the closest races in the country. Their rematch has attracted national attention as well. Dirksen had about $2.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30, and Davis had $1.9 million. More recent fundraising totals are expected to be released soon for the quarter ending Sept. 30.

There are some notable differences in what types of ads the campaigns are running—specifically the types of people the candidates are targeting, Carpenter said. Facebook allows advertisers to buy ads using extremely granular demographic data, such as a person’s age, interests, and yes, their congressional district.

Davis’ ads have reached older people (ages 65+ and 55-64) far more often than Londrigan’s campaign, Carpenter said. Similarly, Londrigan’s ads have reached young people (those 18-24 years old, 25-34, and 35-44) with more frequency than Davis’ campaign.

When their ads have reached beyond the borders of Illinois, they often are encouraging financial contributions, Carpenter said, a nod to the national attention on the 13th District. When the ads were targeted closer to home, issues like health care and get-out-the-vote were more prominently featured, he said. 

Anyone can view ads in the Facebook Ad Library. Carpenter said they can be instructive, and they don’t always match what a candidate is sharing to the wider world on their free Facebook Page.

The library is a good tool, he said, but it has its limitations. There is a lot of unpaid and non-campaign content flying under the radar and shaping voters’ views, he said.

“There’s a false sense of knowledge (with the ads library),” Carpenter said. “There are other ways to exert influence on Facebook, whether that’s through what we might call astroturfing or sock-puppetry, or other means of disseminating disinformation or misinformation. This tells part of the story, but not all of it.”

The sprawling 13th District includes parts of Bloomington-Normal. The election is Nov. 3.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.