As recent debates rage on about manipulative political influence generated through paid advertisements, posts on social media platforms and other digital media, Ghostery, a Cliqz company, began researching tracking scripts focused around the United States midterm congressional elections on November 6, 2018.
Findings from the research reveal that Republican candidate campaign websites have the highest number of trackers, at an average of 5.33 per site, with 45% in the advertising tracker category.
Democratic candidate campaign websites have an average of 1.62 advertising trackers per page, making up 35% of all trackers found. The percentages for Independent candidate websites is 24%; Green art, 24%; Libertarians, 17%; and all other parties, 14%.
Ghostery analyzed 981 House of Representatives and Senate candidate websites and found that 87% contain third-party data trackers. The company also found that advertising trackers, often used to retarget people who visit the website to serve additional ads, account for more than 40% of the trackers in the analysis.
Google ad trackers are present on 57% of sites, Facebook on 29% and Twitter on just 2.45%. Notably, Republican and Democratic candidates utilize Facebook advertising trackers much more, compared with candidates from other political parties.
Websites have become the gateways to capture highly valuable data. If a website includes a Google or Facebook tracking script, for example, the owner of the site will gain data each time someone visits the site. The browser communicates with the cookie or a pixel dropped by the tracking script. This data can be used in Facebook’s or Google’s advertising platform to create targeting scripts for political advertisements.
To analyze the ad tracking, Ghostery put together a list of active candidates through Ballotpedia.com and collected data such as the candidate's name, political affiliation, state, seat and district, incumbency of the candidate, and campaign website. The analysis also includes funds raised for each candidate up until September 25 from the websites of the Federal Election Commission, and used the WhoTracksMe database to determine the companies that own trackers on the campaign websites.
Of the 981 websites assessed, 87% have one or more trackers on them. About 41% of the pages have between
two and five trackers per page. The next biggest segment was 26% with between six and 10 trackers. Only 13% had zero trackers, followed by 11% with 1 tracker, 8% with between 11 and 20 trackers, and
1% with 20 trackers.
Google trackers appear on around 75% of all political pages, compared with Facebook trackers that are on about 53% of pages. Twitter trackers are on around 30% of pages.
Advertising trackers account for almost 40% of all trackers found in Ghostery’s analysis. These trackers are used specifically for data collection, behavioral analysis, retargeting.
Study results also show that candidates in the Northeast have the highest average number of trackers per page at 5.26. Midwest pages came in second with an average of 4.89 trackers per page, followed by the South with 4.65 and the West with 4.48.