Our research

Who Targets Me started in 2017, initially as an effort to understand the ways UK political parties use Facebook advertising, subsequently as a global project to create greater accountability and knowledge about political social media through research, and to advocate for new rules for democracy and elections fit for the digital age. 

Our main research goals are:

  • To better understand the effect of online political advertising on individuals and society
  • To better understand the tools and methods used by platforms and campaigns to deliver online political advertising
  • To create functioning policy that protects and enhances democracy, based on evidence of the use and impact of online political advertising
  • To offer others’ use of the same data and tools as we use in order that they might draw their own – potentially different – conclusions.
  • To remain balanced and evidence-led.

How we perform research

This work is qualitative and quantitative, individual and collaborative, often open, sometimes private. 

Our qualitative research

We constantly look for interesting uses of digital political ads and telling the story of that use. Things we find interesting are:

  • The use of advertising by mainstream campaigns and actors.
  • Campaigns that are hard to identify/attribute to any ‘real world’ actor. This might include ‘foreign’ or ‘inauthentic’ influence.
  • Campaigns that spend large sums and run thousands of ads.
  • Interesting uses of messaging.
  • Notable ways in which ads are targeted.
  • Innovations (and often misuses) of the platforms’ ad products to gain advantage over others

We use data created by users of the Who Targets Me browser extensions, platform ad libraries and other sources such as news coverage and electoral data.

We will often share the most significant findings with media organisations. We are also often contacted by media organisations looking for research on particular stories they’re working on. We work with a wide range of media organisations and have no financial or exclusivity relationships with any publication.

Quantitative research and data sources

We also create tools for looking at online political advertising data at scale

  • Notify, which helps you get data from Facebook when campaigns launch new ads.
  • Spend reports, which allows you to download spending data about political Facebook ads for any date range (more data sources to come).
  • Tagged advertisers, which quickly helps you match Facebook pages against known political entities
  • Who Targets Me data, which provides more granular data than the Facebook Ad Library (though less of it, as it’s built from the ads seen by the 40,000 users of our browser extensions). This isn’t yet fully open, and needs a username/password, contact us with your needs.
  • OPAL (The Online Political Advertising Library), a project to try and unify lots of different datasets about online political ads (platform data, crowdsourced projects, tagging, spending, candidate data and more) in order to reduce duplication by future research projects.

Each of these data sets/sources is available via https://data.whotargets.me

In the past, we have produced both ‘spend race’ and geographical visualisations of the use of online political ads. 

Collaborations with research partners

We have three ongoing research partnerships.

The largest of these is DiCED, an EU-funded project in collaboration with the University of Manchester, YouGov and a number of partner researchers based in universities around the world. The objective of the five year study is to understand the impact of targeted digital communications on voters and campaigns, as well as testing a range of potential interactions . We’ll be working together on the US 2020, Germany 2021, France and US 2022, Poland 2023 and US and UK 2024 elections.

Along with this, we’re working with the University of Amsterdam on a multi-year project to examine similar questions, with a particular focus on the legal frameworks around political communication. As part of this, we’ll be looking at the Dutch election in spring 2021. The project is funded by the Dutch Academy of Sciences.

Finally, we’re working with researchers at the University of Bristol and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin on developing ‘nudges’ and ‘boosts’ for healthier social media use. 

Previously, we’ve worked with the LSE, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Sheffield and the UK Government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

Other collaborations

Among others, we’ve previously worked with:

Policy research

We produce our own policy research and writing, testing our ideas with peer organisations, policymakers in government, policy teams at technology companies and other thinkers working on the internet’s impact on democracy.

Our key areas of work include defining ‘political ads’ and ‘transparency’, as well as developing ideas to make online political advertising more accountable.

Funding sources

We are or have received funding or in-kind support from:

Other sources of revenue include funding or in-kind support to perform the abovementioned research projects, some grant sharing (for example with InternetLab and Skiftet) and one media partnership (Buzzfeed Germany).

Working with us

We are open to new partnerships and collaborations. Please get in touch if you have questions that you think we, or our data, might be able to help answer. Unfortunately, due to limited resources and existing commitments to other research partners, we can’t work on everything.