Multi-million dollar political ad spending on Snapchat revealed amid transparency push

Sep 18, 2019 | Social Media Marketing | 0 comments

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Snapchat
The Snapchat logo (Chesnot/Getty Images)

Another social media giant is providing a snapshot of political ad spending on its platform. 

Snapchat has accounted for more than $1.2 million in political ad spending targeting the U.S. since June 2018, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of newly-released data from the company. This week, Snap joined Google, Twitter and Facebook as the latest tech giant to make their political advertising data available to the public. 

U.S. political ad spending on Snapchat totaled $594,324 in 2018 and $612,043 so far this year.

The newly-released database provides political ad figures that previously weren’t available. The data also provides previously unknown details of political ad buys in countries across the world, with the total spending since mid-2018 exceeding $2.5 million.

Presidential candidates in the 2020 election made up $72,591 of political ad spending reported by Snap. President Donald Trump spent the largest sum on digital advertising among 2020 presidential candidates and also comes out on top of Snapchat spending. Trump has spent more than $26.6 million on digital ads overall, roughly $40,000 of which went to Snapchat. 

A number of candidates have yet to make their Snapchat debut. Some candidates, however, have seen Snapchat support from outside groups.

A super PAC supporting Jay Inslee’s now-folded 2020 bid spent six figures on Snapchat. Billionaire megadonor-turned-candidate Tom Steyer’s NextGen America spent nearly $100,000 in 2018, before he announced a presidential run. Both super PACs are among the top political ad spenders in Snap’s data, along with Everytown for Gun Safety and Planned Parenthood.

The biggest political ad spender on Snapchat is ACRONYM, a “dark money” 501(c)(4) nonprofit that also owns a major digital firm. While many of ACRONYM’s ads are innocuous, simply encouraging voter participation, others reveal more of an agenda. 

One video ad pans to a tranquil forest displaying text that “everything is going to be okay” then suddenly flashes to the word “nightmare” and Trump’s face transposed with a filter to make him look like a monster, urging users to vote to make the nightmare end. Others direct users to the Game of Elections, a website inviting users to choose who will “take the throne” in 2020. One ACRONYM ad transforms an image of Trump into a White Walker, zombie-like creatures in the Game of Thrones TV series, another shows an array of Democratic presidential contenders on the Iron Throne. 

In 2018, the political ad reaching the most Snapchat users in the U.S. was an ad from now-Rep Josh Harder (D-Calif.) attacking his opponent Jeff Denham’s financial ties to “Big Pharma,” which racked up 8.7 million impressions for less than $10,000. 

More than $1.8 million went toward political advertising on Snapchat across the world in 2019 alone, generating more than 96.5 million impressions, according to Snap’s data.

The political ads take a variety of forms ranging from videos displayed to users between snaps or stories, functioning more like traditional political advertising, to geofilters that allow users in targeted locations to add an illustration or filter to their snaps.

In addition to spending totals for each ad buy, Snap’s new data reveals previously unreleased details about everything from what gender and age is targeted by each ad to addresses and links to the ads themselves.

The organization name listed in Snap’s political ad data corresponds to who is responsible for creating each political ad while the advertiser name listed in the data and on the “paid for” disclosure is supposed to be the entity funding the ad, according to Snap’s documentation.

A representative from Snap told OpenSecrets the company will update its database daily.

Lawmakers push for mandated disclosure standards ahead of 2020

Digital ads are becoming an increasingly important tool for federal candidates to find donors and turn out voters, with 2020 presidential candidates already spending nearly $74 million to advertise on the biggest social media platforms.

But digital ads are still not subject to disclosure regulations that apply to TV and radio ads. The loophole helped allow Russian actors to buy and distribute roughly $100,000 worth of political ads under fake accounts without disclosing even basic information about who was behind them. 

The Federal Election Commission has held several discussions on the subject but has been unable to come to a consensus about what the regulations would look like — and now the commission cannot even hold official meetings due to a lack of quorum.  

At a symposium hosted at the FEC Tuesday, representatives from social media giants touted their work to enforcing disclosure rules and create databases of political ads — but election security experts said mandatory disclosure would require government action. 

“Some of the companies have taken their own steps to ensure transparency and disclosure around those kinds of ads, that’s welcome, but they’re using different kinds of standards,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan transatlantic national security advocacy group formed to counter Russian efforts to undermine Western democracies.

Each of the social media giants and other big online platforms has its own requirements for how “paid for” disclaimers should appear and what information must be displayed. Rosenberger argued that the widely varying disclosure standards set by the various social media companies in some ways serve to confuse the general public.

Speaking at the event Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) plugged the Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill that would mandate disclosure of those paying for online political ads. The bill has not received a vote in the Mitch McConnell-led Senate. 

Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who also supports the Honest Ads Act, called on big tech companies Tuesday to exhibit “corporate patriotism” and do more on their own to fight online disinformation. 

Experts agree that while creating uniform disclosure standards for online political ads won’t stop foreign actors from influencing Americans on social media, it is a change that is relatively easy to implement right away.

“There is no silver bullet to address disinformation in a manner that is true to freedom of expression,” said Susan Ness, a former FCC commissioner who now works for the Annenberg Policy Center. “The consensus, however, is that transparency with regards to political advertising is something that needs to be pursued, and it’s best to address behaviors and actors as opposed to the content itself.”

Since Snapchat has only made the data available through bulk download in zip files, OpenSecrets broke down the top spenders and more. Dig into the data yourself!

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