A US-based study probed the spread of political and pandemic propaganda on Facebook’s advertising network

In the findings, as published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, researchers found that the ads were considerably effective at its intended outcome of eliciting more social engagements from users.

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Over the past couple of years, information-ready combatants have taken to social networking sites to spread propaganda through means of digital advertising. On Facebook, foreign actors continue to engage in disinformation campaigns particularly targeting American audiences.

In a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, over 2,500 campaigns on Facebook’s ad network was analyzed by the team and unveiled some striking revelations.

In the findings, as published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, researchers found that the ads were considerably effective at its intended outcome of eliciting more social engagements from users.

“As consumers continue to see ads that contain false claims and are intentionally designed to use their emotions to manipulate them, it’s important for them to have cool heads and understand the motives behind them,” researchers stated.

The study, according to researchers, is the first to probe ad placements by the supposed Russian propaganda group, which is said to have triggered political discourse in the previous U.S. election cycle.

For the research team, the ads consisted of placements on Facebook and Instagram taken from the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence site. The team scanned each ad for inflammatory content synonymous with the purported Russian group’s sowing of discord, using computational resources.

In totality, the propaganda group purportedly spent more than $70,000 on political ads to achieve tens of millions of impressions and millions of clicks. Among the ads placed on Facebook, fear and anger induced the greatest amount of engagements and reactions, with a clickthrough rate of 9.2%, the findings showed.

For instance, ads targeting racial disparities and popular social movements in the U.S. are said to be the most effective at reaching more engagements from American users. And in 2020, the same Russian propaganda group purportedly sowing discord over the last few years, could also be behind the recent surge of online disinformation surrounding the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, researchers cautioned.

“We as a society need to start seriously talking about what role the platforms and government should play in times like the 2020 election or during COVID-19 when we have a compelling need for high-quality, accurate information to be distributed,” the research team concluded.

Altogether, the results of the study demonstrated the extent to which foreign actors are taking to sow discourse on social networking sites and may likely continue their measures for many years to come.

Image courtesy of Dado Ruvic