26 Sep

General Election study launched

Project DATA today launched the General Election Study. Following the successful primary election study, a much larger sample of Data Donors have been recruited, and ads they are being sent are being captured and analyzed in real-time by the project team. This study is one of the largest attempts to gather digital political advertising seen in this, or any country. The project is funded by the Vice Chancellor’s Office for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The grant is underwritten by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF).

But we are still looking to recruit more donors, particularly members of advocacy and/or political organizations. We would like to be able to tell whether members of such organizations are being systematically targeted by the campaigns. This is something we suspect, but are unable to currently demonstrate. So if you are a member of such an organization, please join the project, and get other members of your organization to join too. We would love to hear from people who may be able to promote the study in their organization – please contact ceri.hughes@wisc.edu about becoming a partner organization of the project.

11 Aug

Where are the ads?

Campaigns chose some interesting places to place their ads (or at least they turned up in interesting places). One might expect to see political ads on news site such as latimes.com, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com, time.com, politio.com, dailykos.com, talkingpointsmemo.com. Indeed Project Data found ads on all of those sites.  However ads were also found on less obvious sites, but still sites that seem to make intuitive sense to reach target markets. Sites such as designdininganddiapers.com, webmd.com, womanfreebies.com were used. Some ads however appeared on sites that are really intriguing. Marco Rubio ads turned up on smbc-comics.com. Trump said to Make America Great Again on the 8chan Christian discussion board. Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey seemed to think that an ad on hotnewhiphop.com was a good use of campaign expenditure. The Hillary Victory Fund meanwhile were presumably going after the college and academic vote with an ad on citationmachine.net

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Project lead Professor Young Mie Kim, of University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that these findings indicate that parties are becoming more astute in their targeting of messages, “we have detailed data on the demographic makeup of visitors to websites. By combining this knowledge with the ad collection data, we will can see what types of people are campaigns trying to reach. Our analysis shows that different types of ads appear on different types of sites. This is the essence of microtargeting. With more data we will be able to better gauge the extent of this targeting.” Kim said.

Project Data is currently analyzing these findings to look for patterns in ad placement during the primary season. These findings will inform the work undertaken during the General Election, but the team is still looking for more people willing to donate their ad data to the project. The more ads captured by Data Donors, the more accurate an analysis can be undertaken, and a more accurate picture established as to how exactly political parties now target messages at the electorate. This is something society does not currently know, but it is something that society should know.

Please visit the project website to install Escope and donate your data to this important project.

If you work with an advocacy group, or political organization who care about accountability and transparency in democracy , we would be keen to work with you to promote the project amongst your members – please contact ceri.hughes@wisc.edu. Help us shine a light on this important issue.

*For media inquiries, please contact Professor Young Mie Kim directly at ymkim5@wisc.edu.

27 Jul

A Wedge Appeal is Prevalent in Online Campaigns

Political parties typically have two main aims with campaigns – try and persuade more of the people in the middle who could vote either way to come to your side, or try and persuade more of the people already on your side to actually vote: the “Persuade” or “Get Out the Vote” (GOTV) strategies. Of course all campaigns do both and the situation is far more nuanced than this blunt description, but it is a largely fair encapsulation.


Primary election results from Project DATA (Principal Investigator, Professor Young Mie Kim at University of Wisconsin-Madison) indicate that while GOTV ads seem to be targeted at a wide range of people, persuasion ads were targeted at low income, Republican voters. These voters are in fact the support basis for Donald Trump, who recently accepted the nomination from the RNC.

“Given that Trump was least active in paid-political advertising, even though he was the most active on Twitter, this finding indicates that other Republican candidates and Democrat candidates highly focused on ‘stealing’ Trump supporters with wedge appeals”, Professor Kim said.  


The primary elections are of course different to the General Election in that voters will now have to decide between the two parties rather than between candidates within a party. To gauge whether the same findings are true in the general election, and how specific ad targeting is getting, we need more people to become Data Donors and share the ads they receive with the team by installing Escope. If you work with an advocacy group, or political organization who care about accountability and transparency in democracy , we would be keen to work with you to promote the project amongst your members – please contact ceri.hughes@wisc.edu. Help us shine a light on this important issue.  

*For media inquiries, please contact Professor Young Mie Kim directly at ymkim5@wisc.edu.

25 Jul

The Politically Rich are the Data Rich

If Donald Trump is elected president in November, it will be in one way at least a return to normality in politics – a white middle-aged Christian male will occupy the Oval Office. If Hillary Clinton wins, it will be normality on three of those demographic factors.

Unlike the conventional wisdom—young voters, Asians and Hispanics are the most active online, therefore, those groups should be campaigns target, at least, in online campaigns> However, people targeted more with online political campaign messages seem to be in these demographics—white, middle aged, highly educated Americans. Project Data (Principal Investigator, Professor Young Mie Kim at University of Wisconsin-Madison) has found evidence that those who ever received political ads online during the primaries were more usually members of one or more of these groups than not. There were no big differences between candidates during the past primary elections. More importantly, Professor Kim explains, along with other reasons, “it is because those are the ones that produced the most data for campaigns”. She continues, “while new immigrants, minorities, and young voters produce less data, white, middle-aged, highly educated groups have richer data such as voter registration, voting history, and even consumer-marketing data”.

This is important as one of the greatest concerns which led to the project is information imbalances between different voters, and this finding provides further evidence that this may be happening.


A democracy requires an informed electorate, one of the ways people become informed is through campaign messages. If certain groups are receiving messages, whilst others are not, that has implications. Voter turnout in the country is already low – something which is unlikely to improve if the very people who traditionally have lower turnout rates are the very ones not seeing ads which may give them a reason to turn out.


We do need more people to help on the project by installing Escope, this will allow the team to more accurately assess the information imbalances between different groups in society. If you work with an advocacy group, or political organization, who care about accountability and transparency in democracy, we would be keen to work with you to promote the project amongst your members – please contact ceri.hughes@wisc.edu. Help us shine a light on this important issue.  

*For media inquiries, please contact Professor Young Mie Kim directly at ymkim5@wisc.edu.

08 Jul

Microtargeting in elections – what does it mean for voters?

We’ve probably all had that moment when surfing the web – the ads, which you normally
try your best to ignore, suddenly seem that bit more intriguing. Why does that ad seem so familiar? So appealing? Then you realize – it’s the exact same product you looked at a couple of days ago. That is microtargeting. There is now evidence from Project Data that political parties are now adopting this practice.

Project Data recruited hundreds of voters (“data donors”) to share the political ads they
received during the primary election season. Using the Escope app, which was specifically 369491built for the project, citizens could automatically send any political ads received to the project team. Preliminary results from this data start to uncover how political parties are using microtargeting techniques to send targeted messages to the public. (Principal Investigator, Young Mie Kim; Associate Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison). Kim highlights the following evidence:

  • Candidates seemed to prefer placing their ads on different sites, and sometimes chose niche-interest sites
  • Alexa site classification data shows that sites used by all the candidates tended to have a more male, more white, more educated, and older visitor base
  • The data donors who received political ads compared to those who received no ads were also more white, more educated and older, but there was no gender difference
  • Parties are hungry for more data and really try to encourage people to “sign up”, “join” or “add your name”. It is particularly interesting that non-registered voters are highly targeted with these types of ads479087
  • “Persuasion” (why vote for X) type ads were targeted more at low-income voters and Republicans
  • These same voters also tended to receive more “attack” ads
  • Parties can produce and distribute ads to quickly  respond to events – for example, the Hillary Clinton “Woman Card”





The primary election results indicate there is microtargeting going on by political parties. M0002However to get a fuller picture as to the extent and nuance of the practice, Project Data requires many more Data Donors to help uncover exactly how this practice operates. Only by working together with a large number of citizens will we be able to shine a light on this so far hidden element of democratic elections.

Perhaps the greatest concern is that if certain people are being targeted with certain ads, then it logically follows that others are targeted with different ads, and others not targeted at all. This has concerns in a system which should have an informed electorate. People should be able to make an informed decision about which box to put their X in – if they receive less information than their neighbor, it is a less informed choice. Microtargeting is a practice which should concern us all.

If you would like to help, please visit this page to download Escope.

For general queries, please contact ceri.hughes@wisc.edu, for media queries contact Professor Kim directly: ymkim5@wisc.edu


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11 Jun

Project Data results presented at ICA

Principal Investigator, Young Mie Kim presents some of the empirical findings of Project DATA’s primary election study and discusses behavioral targeting in election campaigns at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association (ichdq.org) in Fukuoka, Japan. We will post our findings here over next weeks. Stay tuned!