December 09, 2019
Across the Field

Ad Delivery Algorithms

The Hidden Arbiters of Political Messaging

Aaron Rieke, Muhammad Ali, Piotr Sapiezynski, Aleksandra Korolova, and Alan Mislove


Political campaigns are increasingly turning to digital advertising to reach voters. These platforms empower advertisers to target messages to platform users with great precision, including through inferences about those users' political affiliations. However, prior work has shown that platforms' ad delivery algorithms can selectively deliver ads within these target audiences in ways that can lead to demographic skews along race and gender lines, often without an advertiser's knowledge.

In this study, we investigate the impact of Facebook's ad delivery algorithms on political ads. We run a series of political ads on Facebook and measure how Facebook delivers those ads to different groups, depending on an ad's content (e.g., the political viewpoint featured) and targeting criteria. We find that Facebook's ad delivery algorithms effectively differentiate the price of reaching a user based on their inferred political alignment with the advertised content, inhibiting political campaigns' ability to reach voters with diverse political views. This effect is most acute when advertisers use small budgets, as Facebook's delivery algorithm tends to preferentially deliver to the users who are, according to Facebook's estimation, most relevant.

Our findings point to advertising platforms' potential role in political polarization and creating informational filter bubbles. Furthermore, some large ad platforms have recently changed their policies to restrict the targeting tools they offer to political campaigns; our findings show that such reforms will be insufficient if the goal is to ensure that political ads are shown to users of diverse political views. Our findings add urgency to calls for more meaningful public transparency into the political advertising ecosystem.

Upturn Authors