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31 August 2023

Adverts on social media fail to boost voter registration among under-represented groups

Social media advertisement is not an effective method of encouraging under-represented groups to register to vote, a new study has found.


Despite the potential to reach and engage large audiences, researchers found that online advertisement on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat had almost no effect on efforts to improver voter-registration rates in groups of young people and in BAME communities.

The results were revealed in a new study, Null Effects of Social Media Ads on Voter Registration: Three Digital Field Experiments, co-authored by Professor Peter John (King’s College London), Dr Asli Unan (Humboldt University of Berlin), Dr Florian Foos (London School of Economics and Political Science) and Vanessa Cheng-Matsuno (London School of Economics and Political Science).

The research team said: “Despite wide reach and relatively high engagement rates, we found no effect of social media campaigns on under-registered groups’ voter registrations across three trials.

“The causal evidence we provide raises questions about whether trying to increase the electoral participation of under-registered voters via social media campaigns is a promising electoral strategy.”

Researchers worked with advocacy organisations and a research-led campaign in the lead-up to the 2019 general election in the UK and the 2021 English local elections, creating a series of advertisements for social media sites Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

The adverts were targeted across hundreds of UK postcodes and encouraged users to follow links to UK government websites that facilitated voter registration.

Across the three election periods, the adverts, which were targeted at young people, ethnic minority groups and private-sector renters, garnered more than four million impressions and more than 30,000 ‘clicks’.

Despite the high engagement, the researchers found that none of the resulting effects on voter registration were significant or positive.

While the results of these trials are sobering, social media platforms will likely remain one medium of choice for many organisations that attempt to register voters. Given that even very small effects could easily scale on social media, the effects of digital ads remain an important topic to be studied via large-scale trials


The study received funding from the Democracy Fund the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. You can read it in full here.

In this story

Peter John

Head of the School of Politics and Economics and Professor of Public Policy