Facebook Ads as a Demographic Tool to Measure the Urban-Rural Divide

Paper by Daniele Rama, Yelena Mejova, Michele Tizzoni, Kyriaki Kalimeri, and Ingmar Weber: “In the global move toward urbanization, making sure the people remaining in rural areas are not left behind in terms of development and policy considerations is a priority for governments worldwide. However, it is increasingly challenging to track important statistics concerning this sparse, geographically dispersed population, resulting in a lack of reliable, up-to-date data. In this study, we examine the usefulness of the Facebook Advertising platform, which offers a digital “census” of over two billions of its users, in measuring potential rural-urban inequalities.

We focus on Italy, a country where about 30% of the population lives in rural areas. First, we show that the population statistics that Facebook produces suffer from instability across time and incomplete coverage of sparsely populated municipalities. To overcome such limitation, we propose an alternative methodology for estimating Facebook Ads audiences that nearly triples the coverage of the rural municipalities from 19% to 55% and makes feasible fine-grained sub-population analysis. Using official national census data, we evaluate our approach and confirm known significant urban-rural divides in terms of educational attainment and income. Extending the analysis to Facebook-specific user “interests” and behaviors, we provide further insights on the divide, for instance, finding that rural areas show a higher interest in gambling. Notably, we find that the most predictive features of income in rural areas differ from those for urban centres, suggesting researchers need to consider a broader range of attributes when examining rural wellbeing. The findings of this study illustrate the necessity of improving existing tools and methodologies to include under-represented populations in digital demographic studies — the failure to do so could result in misleading observations, conclusions, and most importantly, policies….(More)”.