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Banning Political Ads on Facebook Could Backfire Big-Time on Democrats

It would deprive 2020 Democrats of a crucial tool to gather voter data and amass small-dollar donations.

by David Uberti
Nov 5 2019, 4:33pm

Twitter’s decision last week to zap political ads drew cheers from many progressives — and put pressure on Facebook to follow suit.

After all, no presidential candidate is spending more on Facebook than President Donald Trump. And Facebook is widely thought to have helped deliver him the 2016 election by spreading divisive or false content, allowing foreign actors to meddle, and being a tool for voter suppression in swing states like Florida.

But putting the kibosh on political ads would have a devastating impact on liberal candidates and causes.

It would deprive 2020 Democrats of a crucial tool to gather voter data and amass small-dollar donations. It would cede even more territory to a right-wing media that effectively games Facebook’s News Feed. And it would push candidates and outside groups, including down-ballot Democrats furiously working to retake state and local governments, into more expensive media like TV.

“I’ll be blunt: 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,” Tara McGowan, founder of Acronym, a leading progressive digital group, pleaded in a Medium post Sunday.

READ: Why Twitter's political ad ban won't make a damn difference

It speaks to the contradictions that have come to the fore in recent weeks, including within Facebook’s workforce, after the company refused to remove false ads about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Top Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg have suggested that the company should follow Twitter’s lead and abandon a line of business that CEO Mark Zuckerberg said comprises less than 0.5 percent of its business this year. On Monday, the Mozilla Foundation and other nonprofits sent a joint letter to Facebook and Google imploring them to put a moratorium on political ads in the leadup to the U.K.’s general election in mid-December.

Digital advertising, they wrote, “which depends on vast collection of data and opaque ad targeting systems, is not fit for purpose and thus fundamentally undermines trust in political advertising.”

The recent attention all but assures that Facebook will once again be at the center of a yearlong shoutfest in the U.S. Presidential candidates have already combined to spend more than $50 million with the company in 2019, according to its Ad Library, including more than $15 million from the Trump campaign. Those numbers are primed to explode next year.

READ: Facebook had to nuke a bunch of Russian bots right as it bragged it's ready for 2020

But removing political advertising from Facebook would have the harshest impact on smaller candidates and causes that have to spend to build a following. That group does not include Trump, who dominates the platform.

The president won in 2016 in large part by carpet-bombing users with ads and regular posts. A nonstop barrage since then has helped him build an unmatched list of supporters’ emails culled from 24 million Facebook Likes.

His page draws more user engagement than any other mainstream news organization or active political rival. And barring political ads across the board could make it even tougher for competitors like Sen. Bernie Sanders (5.1 million Likes), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (3.3 million Likes), and Biden (1.4 million Likes) to make up ground.

“It’s really hard to get organic reach on Facebook,” Teddy Goff, digital director for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, told VICE News. “They’ve basically shifted the platform to be almost entirely pay-to-play. Groups that were around before that [shift] would have an advantage over anyone that’s running for office for the first time.”

That would up the ante for TV, a medium that is not only more expensive than Facebook and other digital advertising, but also less accurate.

The upshot is that state and local politicians looking to connect with voters in hard-to-reach districts might be out of luck. In a working paper analyzing nearly 7300 campaigns’ in 2018, researchers including Gregory J. Martin found that 10 times as many statehouse candidates advertised on Facebook versus TV.

“For almost every statehouse candidate, the effective price of TV advertising is basically infinite,” Martin, an associate professor of political economy at Stanford University, told VICE News. “That’s one positive thing that Faceobok seems to do: It expands advertising to many more candidates.”

Beto O’Rourke bombarded Texas with more than $6.3 million in Facebook ads last year during his near-upset of Sen. Ted Cruz, whom he outspent on the platform more than 10-to-1. It helped the former El Paso congressman boost raw footage of impassioned campaign stops into Facebook News Feeds and, in turn, raise record cash for a Senate race.

After Twitter announced its ban of political ads last week, Rob Flaherty, the digital director for O’Rourke’s now-suspended presidential campaign, tweeted that “one has to wonder what political fundraising looks like in world where we're not allowed to spend on listbuilding ads Probably not good!

By avoiding fact-checks or limiting targeting options for ads, Facebook and Twitter have instead staked out opposing extremes of the debate — anything goes, or nothing goes. Goff, the Obama alum and co-founder of Precision Strategies, argues that both viewpoints put Democrats at a disadvantage.

Facebook is “saying that it’s not for us to decide what’s true,” he said. “But that is a decision on their part.”

As for a blanket ban a la Twitter, he added, “it’s a cop out because by very definition, it’s a both-sides move. The problem is asymmetrically concentrated on one side. Any solution that punishes both serves an advantage to the side that’s the root of the problem.”

Cover: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for the 8th annual Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California on November 3, 2019. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

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Politics
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Donald Trump
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2020 election