Why you should care
Because Big Tech’s response to scrutiny could have unintended consequences for Democrats.
Tara McGowan, founder of the progressive digital nonprofit Acronym, had long called for smarter oversight over Big Tech platforms. But when Twitter announced it was going to stop allowing political advertising, she responded not with the applause of some of her peers, but with concern about what might come if others followed suit: “A blanket political advertising ban on Facebook would have disastrous consequences for Democrats — and my friends on the left should reconsider advocating for such a move,” McGowan tweeted.
Progressives have led the charge on calling for tech companies to disarm themselves in the political sphere, but this was not the kind of action they were hoping for. A week after Twitter unveiled the final details of its political ad ban in mid-November, Google followed suit with restrictions on microtargeting that severely hamper candidates’ ability to reach potential voters. Then it wasn’t just McGowan sounding the alarm. Three major wings of the party’s apparatus — the Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — released a joint letter in November, calling political ad bans a “cop-out” that “fails to combat disinformation and harms voters’ ability to participate in our democracy, affecting voters of color in particular.”
While Twitter received only a marginal percentage of political ads, Google’s decision had greater impact: The company reports it has run nearly 182,000 political ads worth more than $138 million since May 2018. Still, Facebook is the real ballgame for political advertisers: The social media giant has had nearly 6 million ads (worth almost $1 billion) in that same time frame.
At the end of the day, the right has these organic distribution networks we do not have.
Tatenda Musapatike, Acronym
As pressure mounts on Facebook to make changes of its own before Christmas, Democrats are worried that limiting paid political outreach could backfire — paving the way for the uncontested spreading of misinformation and a potential Donald Trump reelection in 2020. First, left-leaning experts worry that posts promulgated by dark money groups and shady for-profits would flourish in the space left in the absence of campaign ads. Secondly, they believe the Trump team is more poised than those of his Democratic opponents to capitalize if paid advertising is taken off the table.
Trump already boasts a following of 26 million on Facebook, which dwarfs top Democrats like Bernie Sanders (1.6 million), Elizabeth Warren (3.3 million) and Joe Biden (1.4 million). Democrats worry Trump can outflank all his opponents with that organic reach plus the 20-million-plus email list he has built since his 2016 campaign. But the bigger concern is a conservative ecosystem for launching talking points into the digital stratosphere that is much more established than anything on the left.
A Republican attack meme — say, bashing illegal immigrants or promoting conspiracies about Biden’s actions in Ukraine — gets posted on a Facebook group. Which then gets picked up by conservative media groups like PragerU or the Epoch Times (as OZY previously reported, these dubious groups are some of Facebook’s largest political spenders). Which at some point reaches Trump’s itchy Twitter finger and is retweeted to his 67 million followers. And then it gets covered by the mainstream media, launching 1,000 think pieces … seemingly legitimizing the initial, controversial messaging.
“At the end of the day, the right has these organic distribution networks we do not have,” says Tatenda Musapatike, senior director of campaigns at Acronym and a former Facebook employee who oversaw political ad buys.
Some Republicans argue that the ramifications of the Google decision have been overhyped. “The dirty secret is that Google didn’t allow a lot of first-party targeting anyway,” says Scott Tranter, a former Marco Rubio data scientist and co-founder of consulting firm 0ptimus. Others, including the Trump campaign, argue that Republicans — with the more robust digital network of the two parties — have more to lose once that edge is blunted. “This is yet another attempt to silence conservatives, since Twitter knows President Trump has the most sophisticated online program ever known,” tweeted Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale in October.
Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist who runs the Learn Test Optimize industry blog, is more concerned that restrictions on political ads would help only Trump. “More than anything I’m frustrated with [the Google decision] because it was a PR stunt, right? But it was a PR stunt with pretty serious implications for how campaigns run,” Wilson says. That includes Republicans and Democrats who are running in local or statewide races.
Facebook is reportedly considering raising the minimum number of people a campaign could target with an ad. In a local race, where a candidate may typically try to reach out to just a few thousand, campaigns could suddenly be forced to reach groups in the five or six figures at a minimum. That raises advertising costs, making it harder for underdogs to compete and making them more inefficient at the same time. Wilson argues that campaigns will likely adopt more-generic messages to appeal to those wider, more generic audiences. “You’ll see less diversity in terms of the issues talked about online,” Wilson says.
Still, it’s Democrats who appear most worried. They note that issue campaigns by liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List will face stricter scrutiny than Trump, since Facebook fact-checks them but has essentially said it won’t fact-check politicians (the platform has considered marking political ads as “not fact-checked” but otherwise will allow the proliferation of rumormongering, such as Trump’s continued messaging promoting the Biden-Ukraine conspiracy). After years of facing greater criticism from Democrats regarding their influence on politics, Big Tech may finally be responding. But their answer has many on the left more worried than ever.