New Data Sources and Presidential Campaigns

Social media has an undeniable role in presidential campaigns. Starting with Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, on one hand, scholars and practitioners have embraced the potential and importance of these platforms. The 2016 presidential elections, on the other hand, raised concerns about social media’s role in democratic processes as debates about how the platforms can sow misinformation have become mainstream. I argue that there has been a positive outcome of such debates: new data sources. Understanding their role—and their probable potential to do “harm”—social media platforms have worked toward increasing transparency in the political advertisements they carry. From Snapchat to Facebook, transparency reports share detailed information on how political groups, including presidential nominees, have utilized their platforms, targeted audiences, and disseminated calls-to-action. In this article, I argue that these transparency attempts will be invaluable data resources for political communication scholars to better explain how voter choice and candidate positioning work within digital media ecology. I answer four sample research questions about 2020 Presidential Elections in the United States to demonstrate the potential of these data sets in shedding light on how issues, identities, and time-relevant variables change political advertising in presidential campaigns.

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