Facebook is more powerful in Washington than you realize. Here's why.

Congressional offices rely on Facebook to reach and organize their constituents
March 29, 2018, 4:24pm

In 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made one of his first stabs at Washington lobbying.

It didn’t go well.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York had recently criticized the company over privacy concerns and Zuckerberg called his home state senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, to complain.

But Zuckerberg, then in his mid-20s, wasn’t adept at D.C. politicking, according to a former aide to Boxer. “He spent a long time trying to explain the technical details of why Chuck Schumer was wrong instead of telling her what he wanted,” the former aide said. Bored, the senator started checking her email and making travel arrangements while Zuckerberg went on and on (Boxer told VICE News through a spokesperson that she didn’t remember the call).

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That was then.

Eight years later, Zuckerberg is expected to appear before Congress amid the biggest political shitstorm in his company’s history. The Facebook co-founder has reportedly agreed to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next month, where he will be asked about how data from 50 million Facebook profiles slipped into the hands of Cambridge Analytica, a U.K.-based political consulting firm that did millions of dollars' worth of work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, 37 state and territory attorneys general signed a letter Monday asking for Facebook to send them more information because their “trust has been broken.” And the Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into potential privacy abuses that could result in billions of dollars in fines.

Read: Mark Zuckerberg just broke his silence on Cambridge Analytica

The company now faces the specter of privacy regulation that could strike at the core of its business model. “I don’t have any interest in regulating [companies like Facebook and Twitter and Google] into oblivion,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said at the Robin Toner Prize journalism dinner in D.C. Monday night. “But as they’ve grown from dorm-room startups into media behemoths…they haven’t acknowledged that that kind of power comes with responsibility."

Soft power

When Zuckerberg comes to Washington, he’ll be backed by one of the most influential lobbying operations in town. In 2010, when Zuck called Boxer, Facebook was a nonfactor in D.C., spending just $250,000 on lobbying. Today it has a professional team that cost over $11 million in 2017 (Google spent $18 million in lobbying, the most of any company in America). Facebook spent that money to influence legislation on issues like political ad disclosures, net neutrality, sex trafficking online, and immigration. And Facebook is looking to further bolster its D.C. presence with openings for 11 more policy-related positions.

That does not include a variety of other potential campaign donation vehicles, such as the Facebook Inc. PAC, which gives equally to both parties and has donated $384,072 so far this cycle; and Zuckerberg’s FWD.us, which spent millions pushing for immigration reform in 2014 and spent $1 million lobbying in D.C. last year.

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Facebook declined to comment on its Washington activities other than in a line from its "political engagement report": "It is important for Facebook to develop relationships with elected officials and candidates for public office who share our vision of an open internet and a culture of innovation."

“Anytime Bernie [Sanders] shares something of mine on his Facebook page, I think I reach more people than If I go on CNN or MSNBC.”

But lobbying doesn't begin to cover Facebook’s vast influence in Washington. Facebook is unique in that it's become an indispensable political tool for the very lawmakers who are considering regulating it. Even Congress members who've yet to meet a lobbyist on Facebook’s payroll still have their own Facebook page where they interact with voters, and have likely received consulting services from Facebook to help them optimize their pages.

Because of the reach and sophistication of its platform, Facebook now plays an increasingly powerful mediating role between D.C. politicians and their constituents.

“Anytime Bernie [Sanders] shares something of mine on his Facebook page, I think I reach more people than if I go on CNN or MSNBC,” said Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who represents part of Silicon Valley and regularly engages with Facebook executives — but said he’d never been lobbied on any particular issue. “The power to organize is extraordinary,” he said, adding that he’s done Facebook Live’s that television wouldn’t cover but still reached hundreds of thousands of people.

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Read: Cambridge Analytica CEO caught on tape saying company's Facebook scam helped elect Trump

Pipeline to voters

The company’s D.C. team has done its best to ensure the platform is ubiquitous on Capitol Hill, offering de facto consulting services to help congressional offices set up their own pages, verify their accounts, and use the tools that track ad effectiveness. They also provide advice on improving engagement on posts, how to see which people on the page are constituents, and how to use other features like Facebook Live to host “town halls.” Hill offices have a special point of contact at the company to help them with any issues.

Facebook isn’t the only company to provide hands-on assistance to lawmakers. Delta provides a special call-in number for booking congressional travel, for example. Twitter and Snapchat provide similar consulting services to members of Congress trying to talk to voters, sometimes going to their offices and sitting down with staff. And the collaboration between politicians and tech companies including Google is even greater during campaign season when lawmakers have multimillion-dollar ad budgets.

In the 1860s, Western Union—on its way to becoming a tech monopoly—created a special bureau charged with disbursing stamps—called “franks”—to lawmakers so they could send free telegrams, as recounted in “Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order.” The practice saved the company “many times the value of the free service,” its president William Orton once told Congress.

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Read: Facebook may have broken state and federal law in Cambridge Analytica data share

Facebook’s direct pipeline to communicate with voters gives them a source of leverage that has no clear parallel in Washington. “I can't think of anything similar,” Dan Auble, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics who is in charge of the group’s lobby tracking tools, said of the relationship between lawmakers and Facebook. “There are other examples of industries that lobby a lot and also are relied on by Members, such as airlines they use to fly home and broadcasters they use for campaign advertisements, but this is a bit different.

Some on Capitol Hill are wary of that power dynamic. Several communications directors in Congress told VICE News that they've seen the level of user engagement on their pages decline in recent months as Facebook has been making adjustments to its news feed to emphasize family and friends. That drop in engagement demonstrated to aides just how powerful a slight adjustment in the spigot can be.

Still, of the dozen congressional aides interviewed for this story, most don’t feel pressured or leveraged by the role Facebook plays in their offices.

“I just don’t see how they would flex that muscle with Congress,” said Yuri Beckelman, the deputy chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Mark Takano and a co-founder of the “Digital Academy” that trains young Democratic staffers in digital communications. “It’s a platform, and I can’t see them tweaking the algorithm just to hurt an individual congressman.”

Cover illustration: Leslie Xia