Ad Targeting in the German Election campaign

Research, analysis, and tool created by Fabio Votta.

Facebook provides a host of targeting opportunities to political advertisers seeking to communicate their message to an online audience. Thanks to data provided by users of Who Targets Me, we can explore how political actors target audiences during the 2021 German parliamentary elections.

Roughly 5000 German users of the browser extension provide us with a constant stream of data about the political ads they see on Facebook. In total, over 90,000 political ads were seen between April 26th and August 3rd, 2021. Along with the ad, users share the text from the ‘Why am I seeing this?’ label which accompanies each ad. Contrary to the Facebook ad library, which does not provide this kind of information, the ‘Why am I seeing this?’ label reveals the criteria the political advertiser was trying to target.

Exploring and visualising targeting during the German 2021 Parliamentary Election campaign

A screenshot from the app.

This post explores the targeting data gathered over the last several months. It’s accompanied by an interactive app that lets you explore the data for yourself. If you want to learn more details about the data and what kind of insights we can derive from it, keep reading. Alternatively, simply jump into the data yourself and see what you find.

Note: Our dataset classifies all party and candidate Facebook accounts as belonging to their respective party, be it on the local, state, or federal level. That means: Armin Laschet, chancellor candidate for the CDU/CSU, the official CSU Facebook account, and the Berlin branch of the CDU party CDU Berlin, are all classified as belonging to the party block of the CDU/CSU. This classification includes over 6,500 political Facebook pages in Germany. Further, to alleviate some of the sampling bias, the data presented here was weighted to match the age, gender, and state population of Germany.

Which targeting methods and criteria are the parties using?

In order to gauge which targeting criteria are most frequently used by which party, we divide the number of times an ad appeared in a timeline with a certain targeting criterion by the total number of targeted impressions received by a party. This gives us a measure of the relative importance of targeting criteria per party.

Figure 1: Most Frequent Targeted Impressions by Political Party

So for example, we can observe that the most commonly occurring targeting criterion for FDP pages is a location: Berlin, which makes up 12.5% of all targeted impressions for the FDP.

Figure 1 visualizes this targeting importance measure for six political parties: the CDU/CSU, AfD, FDP, SPD, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and Die LINKE. We can observe that targeting interest in their own party seems to be a very common strategy (within the top 3) among all political parties, except for the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) who seem to focus more on issues like environmental protection (“Umweltschutz”) or renewable energy (“Erneuerbare Energien”).

The data for AfD is, unfortunately, less telling because our sample of Who Targets Me users skews more moderate/left-leaning and only a few users identify as right-wing. Therefore, our users only see few AfD ads since we already know that parties seem likely to predominantly target their own base. Yet, we can still observe that one of the most top-occurring targeting criteria is interest in the AfD.

In general, German parties seem to predominantly target their own voter base, be it via targeting interest in their own party and issues they stand for, or targeting certain age groups like the CDU/CSU that often direct their ads to people aged 30 and upwards (older age groups have higher shares of CDU/CSU voters).

This suggests that political parties often use Facebook targeting as a way of mobilising voters who are already interested in their party rather than persuading new voters, a finding that academic research into online targeting has already hinted at (Franz et al. 2020, Fowler et al. 2021).

However, there is also some evidence for more aggressive targeting. Die LINKE (“the left”) not only frequently targets interest in its own party and politicians but also people who are interested in the SPD (the social democrats). This could point to an attempt by the left to pick up left-wing voters from the more moderate SPD.

Parties like the FDP, CDU/CSU, and to a lesser extent, the SPD and AfD also seem to often rely on so-called custom audiences to reach voters. The most frequently used method here is the lookalike audience, whereby the political advertiser defines a target audience (for example by uploading a list of emails, or people who engage with content on their page or website) and Facebook helps identify people who are similar to them (in terms of interest, demographics, etc.). Of course, if a custom audience consists of an email list of volunteers or people who engaged with the party page before, it can be seen as yet another effort to mobilise existing support rather than persuading new people.

Targeting Networks

Another way to explore the relationship between the targeting criteria used is to use a network visualisation.

When looking at the network visualisation, the circles are targeting criteria (age, gender, interests, etc.) and the squares are political accounts using these criteria to target ads. The more ad impressions that use a specific targeting, the greater the size of the circle. Similarly, the larger the square, the more ads by this advertiser were seen by our sample (targeted or not). The thickness of the connection between the squares and dots show how often this targeting combination appeared in our user sample.

Targeting Networks of CDU/CSU

Figure 2: CDU/CSU often targets interest in its own party

Figure 2 shows that the CDU/CSU frequently targets interests in CSU, CDU, and Angela Merkel, which often coincide with targeting voters that are 35 or older. These targeting criteria combined imply that the CDU/CSU is mainly targeting their voter base and attempting to mobilize them to vote.

Targeting conspiracy and extremist interests

As we’ve seen from the data, Facebook offers many, many ad targeting options. Unfortunately, not all of those options are a good thing. That the company allows ads to be targeted towards people with an interest in extremism is not a new story. In an especially egregious example, journalists discovered that Facebook had allowed ads targeted at people with interest in “white genocide”, a far-right conspiracy theory.

Figure 3: Politician Dieter Dehm targets far-right and conspiracy interests on Facebook.

In our data, we discovered that Die LINKE politician Dieter Dehm, who has been accused of flirting with corona-related conspiracy theories before, ran political ads targeted at people with interests in the far-right publication Epoch Times and known conspiracy influencer Ken Jebsen (via his show KenFM).

A Diether Dehm ad targeted at people with an interest in Russia Today, Epoch Times, KenFM, Vladimir Putin, and WikiLeaks (among others).

In it, he decries “German imperialism” for badmouthing vaccines made in China, Russia, and Cuba, and says it is why he chose to get vaccinated in Russia instead. The text of the ad also plays down the importance of vaccines by wrongly suggesting that a good immune system should be enough to only get a mild case of COVID-19:

“[…] I myself am neither a fanatical opponent of vaccination nor a proponent of it: Because the main successes against this virus take place in our immune systems anyway when it – spared from stress and environmental damage – wards off germs and causes asymptomatic infections. […]”

Ad by Dieter Dehm (original in German, own translation)

We’ll be updating the app and our analysis over the remaining weeks of the election campaign.

If you want to know more about targeting during the German 2021 election and explore the data yourself, try the interactive app. If you want to contribute data, please install Who Targets Me. And if you want to support more work like this, consider making a donation.