“Facebook plays a positive role by helping leaders like you connect with voters,” Mark Zuckerberg told European Parliament members in May.
The CEO’s appearance was meant to clarify Facebook’s influence on global politics—one of several testimonies that arose from this year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. Yet, despite the interrogation of Zuckerberg and other tech leaders, questions about their companies’ intimacy with election campaigns have gone largely unanswered.
But an investigation from the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit and ethics watchdog group, reveals new details about the political embeds of Facebook and Google. It calls the discreet relationship a conflict of interest, and a surprisingly unregulated one. Campaigns receive free tools and services, it says, while platforms curry insights and powerful political allegiances.
“We are so close with [the campaigns] that we are typically sitting in their offices or having daily calls,” said Ali Jae Henke, a Google employee embedded in a 2016 Republican presidential campaign.
Sometimes Google’s embeds switched between roles—problematically, between ad sales and lobbying, the Campaign for Accountability found via LinkedIn. Google’s head of international elections outreach, Lee Dunn, formerly led the company’s White House outreach, for instance. In this latter role, Dunn had lobbied the Trump administration on digital taxes and copyright. Google’s team lead for US politics, Rob Saliterman, sold ads to campaigns while simultaneously lobbying lawmakers on various policies, the report notes.
Google has been aiding campaigns since 2012. Its consultants have helped to target voters, design ads, produce YouTube videos, and craft messaging. For example, presidential candidate Rand Paul’s staffers visited Google HQ for “ideation” sessions. A campaign like Paul’s may have received “digital real estate that commercial clients could not access.” In practice, this included things like “candidate cards,” which let candidates push their views in quote boxes near the top of Google search results. This effectively served as free advertising, the group argues. In one instance, Donald Trump’s cards appeared in results for a primary debate in which he never participated. Meanwhile, the Google staffer who consulted Trump’s team on its cards also helped with the campaign’s advertising plan.
Facebook—about which Trump’s “digital guru,” Therese Hong, said, “Without [it], we wouldn’t have won”—has also offered to assist campaigns since 2012, the Campaign for Accountability notes. It’s “political influencer” tool, for example, guaranteed that ads would be seen by politically engaged users. The Trump team reportedly spent $70 million on Facebook advertising, running 50,000 to 60,000 political ads each day. Trump received an alleged $250 million in donations thanks to Facebook’s ad targeting—a success that Zuckerberg congratulated Trump on in a phone call after his election, BuzzFeed News reported.
At Facebook, staff were allegedly sorted according to political affiliation, “making it easy to deploy them to campaigns from both parties.” That’s according to Daniel Kreiss and Shannon C. McGregor, authors of Technology Firms Shape Political Communication, a paper published in 2017 that relied on interviews with Facebook and Google employees, and was heavily cited by the Campaign for Accountability. The Trump campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, reportedly requested Republican embeds.
Less surprisingly, the report discovered that Google and Facebook often tapped the expertise of political insiders. At Google and YouTube, nearly 40 percent of 70 people hired to work on political teams possessed a background in politics. At Facebook, that number was more than 50 percent of 32 people hired to do similar work. (Note that these percentages were based on available LinkedIn data.)
The Campaign for Accountability also flags the “porous boundary” between advertising and political affairs at Facebook and Google, raising questions about illegal in-kind contributions.
“Generally,” the report quotes from the Federal Election Commission, “if an individual provides services to a campaign during paid working hours, the employer makes a contribution to the campaign.”
According to the report:
Google might argue that they provide the consulting because the campaign is buying ads. However, the value of that consulting—separate and apart from the ads—is significant. Presidential campaigns paid tens of millions of dollars for digital consulting during the 2016 cycle, according to FEC data, though opaque and inconsistent reporting makes it impossible to determine exactly how much.
Google says it makes no contributions as a company to support political candidates. (Corporations are barred from donating directly to candidates’ campaigns from their treasury funds but can support outside groups as long as they don’t coordinate with the campaign.)
Zuckerberg, when asked about this by Congress, replied that no Facebook employee worked “full-time” for the Trump or Clinton campaigns. And that staff were specifically trained to comply with election laws.
But the nonprofit argues the roles of political staff at Facebook are too nebulous to be considered normal—that is, Facebook cannot claim that the work it does for election campaigns is the same as for other clients.
Still, it notes, both companies continue to hire for these positions. One Facebook job posting seeks a person “to help build and sell Facebook s advertising solutions to significant advertisers in the US Politics industry, specifically to Democratic candidates, campaigns, and advocacy groups.”
Correction: This story originally misidentified Therese Hong as Therese Wong.