Digital campaigns have gained much attention in recent years. Often discussed in the context of elections, online campaigning tools are being regularly used to promote different issues and agendas online. These affordances are being taken up by actors from political parties, governments, campaign groups and lone activists who deploy campaigns on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, GoogleAds, WhatsApp and Snapchat.

The need to understand digital campaigning

Whilst academics have long been interested in the strategies, actions and fortunes of political actors as they campaign and battle for power, recent trends in digital campaigning have been seen to require urgent study and response. With claims of misinformation, foreign interference and voter suppression being promoted online, it has become important to know what is happening, but also what the consequences of different forms of digital campaigning are.

Interest in these questions has undoubtedly grown over recent years and numerous reports and inquiries have been conducted around the world looking at these issues. And yet our quest for knowledge and insight has been challenged by a lack of transparency, difficulties of access and methodology which have made it hard to understand what is going on. Researchers, regulators and policy makers alike have therefore faced significant challenges in gaining information about, let alone systematically analysing, digital campaigning trends.

The example of Facebook

To give just one example of the challenges researchers now face. Since around 2015 online political advertising has become a prominent feature on election campaigns. Evident in the UK, US and elsewhere, politicians, parties and campaigners now frequently use Facebook advertising (and advertising on other platforms) to communicate their messages. Until recently, however, researchers had only limited ways of discerning what these adverts contained or who they were targeted at. Whilst a handful of independent groups such as Who Targets Me and ProPublica developed ways of gathering information on political ads, these initiatives did not fully capture what was going on. When Facebook announced the creation of a new ad archive it appeared that more insight would be available. But, as recent coverage in the New York Times has shown, this archive also has a range of limitations that make it challenging for researchers to use. At present, therefore, it is difficult to know very much about how advertising on Facebook, let alone other platforms is being used.

Our response to the challenge of studying digital campaigning

Recognising this challenge and many others, Dr Sam Power and I convened two British Academy workshops in 2018 and 2019 designed to explore the question of how to study digital campaigning. Bringing together practitioners, industry stakeholders, policy makers and academics, these workshops reflected on the challenges posed by advances in digital campaigning and considered how it may be possible to respond.

In our recently published report, we present the outcomes of these events, reflecting on the varied motivations for studying digital campaigning, the methods used, and the nature of the challenge faced by academics and stakeholders. What is clear is that the challenges facing researchers are multifaceted and complex. What will be needed in the future is more interdisciplinary, innovative research that gathers and analyses data in different ways to establish what, exactly, is being done and how this varies around the world. Examples of this type of research are already emerging, with those with computational and social science skills collaborating to integrate surveys, social media data and more conventional interviews. Bringing together different skills from across the methodological spectrum will be crucial to thinking up new ways of gathering data on practices online. It is clear that there is no quick fix to be found here, rather scholars and non-academics need to pool their expertise to tackle the challenge of studying online political campaigns.

Dr Kate Dommett
Senior Lecturer and Director of the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield

Dr Kate Dommett is Senior Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

Dr Sam Power
Lecturer in Corruption at the University of Sussex

Dr Sam Power is a Lecturer in Corruption at the University of Sussex.