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Is Facebook’s status as the bête noire of political advertising justified?

Facebook has started 2020 — the year in which America will decide who its next president will be — on a controversial note. On Thursday, the social media giant said it would continue to allow political ads on its platforms, without fact-checking them, and also that it would not ban ads that are aimed at and shown to only certain groups of the electorate — so-called “microtargeting”.

From the New York Times, under the headline “Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down From Allowing Lies in Political Ads”: 

Defying pressure from Congress, Facebook on Thursday said that it would continue to allow campaigns to use the site to target advertisements to particular slices of the electorate and that it would not police the truthfulness of the messages that they send out.

Facebook’s announcement (in which it also said, though this bit was not so widely reported on, that users would now be able to see fewer political ads if they wish, and that it would make its “ad library” easier to search) has provoked an outcry.

Renowned Facebook critic and Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr said Mark Zuckerberg had “taken his orders from Trump” in sanctioning “the delivery of toxic lies to voters in darkness”, while Bill Russo, campaign spokesman for Democratic hopeful Joe Biden, said it was “more window dressing around (Facebook’s) decision to allow paid misinformation”.

The announcement has also provoked a number of comparisons to other big tech companies — in particular Twitter, which banned all political advertising last year, and Google, which imposed some restrictions on political ads and has barred microtargeted ads.

The New York Times, for example, said:

The stance put Facebook, which is the most important digital platform for political ads, at odds with some of the other large tech companies, which have begun to put new limits on political ads . . .

Other social media companies have decided otherwise, and some had hoped Facebook would quietly follow their lead. In late October, Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, banned all political advertising from his network, citing the challenges that novel digital systems present to civic discourse. Google quickly followed suit with limits on political ads across some of its properties, though narrower in scope.

Twitter and Google seem to be doing pretty well out of this story — there’s a lot of talk about Facebook “falling short” of the high standards that Twitter and Google have apparently set here. But how many times have you heard that Google and Twitter were responsible for Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory? Not very often, we would wager, as Facebook is by far the most important internet platform for political advertising. And that means political advertising is far more important to its business model. 

Facebook relies much more on advertising than Twitter and Google (hence the company’s attempts to diversify by creating a global Federal Reserve equivalent, aka Libra). In 2018, 98 per cent of Facebook’s revenues came from advertising; for Twitter that number is around 86 per cent; while for Google, it’s only 70 per cent. 

As Sam Jeffers, co-founder of Who Targets Me, a campaign group for transparency in online political advertising, told us:

It’s super convenient for each of these companies that the decisions they’re making don’t really affect their bottom line in any real sense. For every £10 spent on political ads Facebook, about £1 is spent on Google, and a few pennies are spent on Twitter . . .

These ad policies are basically commercial plays against each other. Google banning microtargeting costs Google nothing but is a direct attack on Facebook’s business model. It’s purely a strategic move that says that if Facebook now feels compelled to follow, and get rid of an audience-based targeting model, that starts to bleed into the rest of their targeting model, which costs them money, weakening them and strengthening us. Twitter banning political advertising costs them zero financially but heaps a lot of pressure elsewhere . . .

Also, if Facebook were to ban political ads, where would political parties and campaign groups advertise? The digital realm has become the key battleground in elections, with political parties pouring far more into ads on its platforms than elsewhere. And Facebook ads are much cheaper than TV ones, meaning that not only can Donald Trump reach voters, but so can smaller parties and groups that might not otherwise be able to.

Indeed, the fact that these ads can be targeted makes advertising spend can be more efficient. If a charity urgently needs to raise more money, for example, it can easily target Facebook users who are likely to donate — such as previous donors — without having to spend millions mounting a nationwide TV campaign.

One could argue, therefore, that Google’s decision to ban microtargeting might actually benefit the company, as potential advertisers won’t be able to limit their messages to particular slices of the population, so will have to spend more to send their ads out across the wider public.

And the company does not appear to be that committed to restricting tactics that are deliberately misleading. Ahead of December’s UK elections, the Tories paid Google enough so that the top result, when voters googled “Labour” ahead of and during the launch of the party’s manifesto, was the Tory-sponsored spoof website “labourmanifesto.co.uk”.

Twitter’s Dorsey, meanwhile, might well have cited “the challenges that novel digital systems present to civic discourse”, but anyone who’s spent any time on Twitter might reasonably wonder whether his business — with its echo chambers, bots, and its vicious ad-hominem attacks — might present some pretty strong challenges to civic discourse itself. And he might say he believes “political message reach should be earned, not bought” but anyone who’s spent any time on Twitter can see that reach is not earned by merit.

Donald Trump, with his 70m followers, doesn’t need to pay for exposure via Twitter — according to the Guardiansome four-fifths of the president’s tweets end up in news stories anyway. Again, not allowing paid-for political ads could well end up favouring incumbents and penalising smaller parties and groups.

So we should be careful not to imagine that Twitter’s and Google’s decisions to limit political ads show any kind of deep commitment to democratic ideals, or that they will help limit the spread of misinformation. Facebook may be the pantomime villain, but its supporting cast are hardly guilt-free.


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