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54% in the US say social media companies shouldn’t allow political advertising

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More than half of US adults (54%) say social media companies shouldn’t allow political advertising on their platforms. And a larger proportion (77%) find it not very or not at all acceptable for these companies to use data about their users’ online activity to show them ads from political campaigns, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted by the September 8-13, 2020.

At the same time, 45% say social media companies should allow at least some political ads on their platforms, with 26% saying these companies should allow all of these ads and 19% support the idea that only some should be allowed. And 22% think it is at least somewhat acceptable for social media companies to use data about their users’ online activities to show them advertisements for political campaigns.

Opinions against political advertising span most groups, although there are some differences associated with factors such as partisanship and age. For example, only 15% of Democrats and Independents leaning towards the Democratic Party say social media companies should allow all political ads on their platforms, compared to 38% of Republicans and GOP supporters. About 27% of Democrats say only a few political ads should be allowed on these platforms, compared to a much smaller proportion of Republicans (10%) who say the same thing. When it comes to not allowing political advertising on these sites at all, 56% of Democrats and half of Republicans take this view.

This is part of a series of articles about Americans’ experiences and attitudes towards the role of social media in politics today. The Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand attitudes towards political advertising on social media platforms. To investigate this, we surveyed 10,093 U.S. adults September 8-13, 2020. All participants are members of the center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online polling panel recruited through national random samples of residential addresses. This way, almost all US adults have a chance of choice. The poll is weighted to be representative of the adult US population by gender, race, ethnicity, party affiliation, education, and other categories. Read more about the methodology of ATP.

Here are the questions that were used for this report, along with the answers and methodology.

There are no ideological differences in these views within the democratic cohort. However, the Republicans are a little more divided from an ideological point of view. For example, 43% of Conservative Republicans say social media companies should allow all political ads on their platforms, while 30% of moderate to liberal Republicans say the same. Moderate and Liberal Republicans are also about twice as likely as Conservative Republicans to say that these websites should only allow some political ads (16% versus 7%).

These views also vary somewhat by age. People aged 65 and over are most likely to disapprove of political advertising on social media. About 64% of those over 65 say these websites shouldn’t allow political ads on their platforms, compared to just over half of 30 to 64 year olds and 45% of 18 to 29 year olds are more likely to Allow only a few ads on the site, with 30% saying this, compared to about one in five or fewer people in the older age groups.

There are also differences in these views based on race, ethnicity, and gender. White Americans (56%) are more likely than Black (47%), Hispanic (51%), and Asian Americans (48%) to say that these companies shouldn’t allow political ads on their websites. However, white Americans (28%) are also more likely than black (21%), Hispanic (23%), and Asian American adults (19%) to say social media sites should all allow political ads on their websites. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans are more likely than white adults to prefer social media sites that only allow some political ads on their sites. Women (58%) are also more likely than men (49%) to say that these websites shouldn’t allow political ads on their platforms. Conversely, men are more likely than women to allow all political ads on these sites (31% versus 21%).

These results reflect an increasing dynamic in the political debate in this electoral cycle. In recent years, social media sites have evolved into news centers, serving as online public spaces where people can meet and discuss political information. But in the current campaign season, social media companies and political candidates have criticized themselves for posting and approving ads with false information.

Some companies respond. In late 2019, Twitter announced it would ban sponsored political content from the site altogether, and recently others, like Facebook, announced their plans to ban new political ads in the week leading up to the competition.

Tactically, many political ads on social media are based on microtargeting – a strategy used to reach a specific group of users based on their geographic location or personal interests. Social media companies have taken different approaches when it comes to moderating ad targeting. For example, Facebook uses a robust classification system to categorize users’ preferences, including political leanings. On the other hand, Google said in 2019 it would limit how political candidates can target users with ads based on political attributes.

About three-quarters of Americans say it is unacceptable for social media companies to use users' data to show them advertisements from political campaigns

When asked about the acceptance of social media companies that use data about their users’ online activities to show them advertisements from political campaigns, around three-quarters of Americans (77%) say they don’t or don’t is not at all acceptable. About 53% say this alignment is not at all acceptable. Around a fifth (22%) think targeting is more or less acceptable, and a small proportion (4%) say that this is very acceptable.

There is not much difference between the partisans on this issue. At the same time, there are differences in these attitudes according to race and ethnicity. The vast majority of white adults (82%) find that social media companies that use data about their users’ online activity to target them with ads from political campaigns are not very or not at all acceptable compared to smaller ones Proportions, albeit still majorities, of Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans.

Views on the acceptance of this practice also vary by age. Those 65 and over (87%) are more likely than younger Americans to find this type of ad targeting unacceptable or unacceptable, although seven in 10 or more of the younger groups share this view.

This public opposition to political ad targeting is not new. These results are in line with a 2018 Center survey that found that about six in ten US social media users (62%) found it unacceptable for social media sites to have data about them and their online activities use to show news from political campaigns. And the results of the current survey build on recent research showing that the public is concerned about the interaction between big technology companies and politics. For example, most Americans believe that social media sites censor political viewpoints, and few U.S. adults say they are very or fairly confident that tech companies will prevent their platforms from being abused in the 2020 election.

Note: This is part of a series of blog posts leading up to the 2020 presidential election examining the role of social media in politics today. Here are the questions that were used for this report, along with the answers and methodology.

CORRECTION (October 2020): The methodology section has been updated to reflect the correct cumulative response rate. None of the study results or conclusions were influenced.

Further articles in this series:

Brooke Auxier is a former research fellow with a focus on internet and technology at the Pew Research Center.

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