Facebook’s Knee-Jerk Reaction Could Hand Trump the Election
A blanket political advertising ban on the social media platform would have disastrous consequences for Democrats
Last week, after Twitter announced its decision to ban political advertising from its site, a growing chorus of Democratic operatives and pundits began advocating for Facebook to follow suit. 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.
I’ve built my career working at the intersection of digital advertising and progressive politics. I also wholeheartedly believe in campaign finance reform and the critical need for the government regulation of Facebook. My organization, Acronym, builds digital infrastructure and runs progressive campaigns online. Each week in my organization’s newsletter, FWIW, we track the enormous amount of money spent on the platform, and we regularly note the major advantage that President Donald Trump’s campaign has online. That’s how I can say with confidence that the Trump campaign’s advantage and the platform’s responsibility for regulation go much further than just paid advertising. Here’s why.
Eliminating political ads won’t stop the spread of misinformation on Facebook
In the absence of political advertising on the platform, inflammatory and hate-filled posts (a staple of the Trump brand) spread organically like wildfire on Facebook due to algorithms that prioritize engagement at all costs. Much of the misinformation in the 2016 elections spread organically through obscure memes and Facebook pages operated by foreign governments; just two weeks ago, Facebook took down more than 50 accounts operated by Russian intelligence. Those accounts had small followings, spent no money on ads, and existed to create content that would be highly engaging to targeted communities.
It’s also worth noting that while Twitter’s decision to ban political ads is helping to drive this very conversation, Twitter has never been as powerful a channel for driving paid outreach to voters as Facebook. Since our very first paid advertising programs launched in 2017, Acronym has only ever spent between 2% and 3% of any digital ad campaign on Twitter.
The Trump campaign has a massive structural advantage on Facebook
The Trump campaign has spent the past five years using paid advertising to find and build a community of 26 million followers on Facebook — far outpacing the nearest Democrat’s organic following (Sanders: 5.1 million; Warren: 3.3 million; Biden: 1.4 million) and reach on the platform. If Facebook were to eliminate political advertising tomorrow, Trump would still be able to communicate with his supporters organically, while the Democratic nominee would be permanently resigned to a much smaller audience for the general election.
While organic reach on the platform is a huge advantage for any candidate, the ability to collect data about voters on Facebook through political ads, which a campaign can then use to reach those voters off Facebook and on other platforms, is an even greater advantage. Trump’s campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars amassing data on tens of millions of voters for this very purpose. Without political ads, no Democratic candidate or organization will be able to catch up.
Democrats rely on Facebook ads for grassroots fundraising
On top of that, Democratic campaigns have historically relied on small-dollar, grassroots donors at a higher rate than their Republican opponents — and Facebook is the prime marketplace for finding new supporters to ask for money. Especially in an election year where one of the leading Democratic candidates, Elizabeth Warren, has sworn off large-dollar fundraising altogether, this would cut off a vital artery of cash to our side. It’s worth noting that while Warren has been one of Facebook’s biggest critics, she’s yet to call for a ban on political Facebook ads — because it could cripple her campaign.
Trump benefits from a conservative digital media ecosystem
For years, right-wing groups have invested in building digital media properties like Breitbart, PragerU, the Western Journal, and the Daily Wire, which spread conservative misinformation to millions on Facebook every day. Random right-wing Facebook pages not affiliated with Beltway organizations can share pro-Trump propaganda and reach millions in an instant without spending a dime. Progressive groups have largely ignored that advantage, instead relying on boom-and-bust campaign cycles to reach voters online or on TV with traditional ads every two years. If Facebook were to ban ads, those media platforms could be excepted from the rules or, if banned from advertising, would still benefit from a wide organic reach, continuously feeding the echo chambers they’ve built with the help of Facebook’s algorithms.
Facebook has a responsibility to self-regulate this cycle, and changes are desperately needed. The company should immediately reverse its exemption that allows political candidates to freely spread misinformation and lies. Facebook has a responsibility to prevent the spread of organic hate speech and deepfakes on its platform.
Facebook should not, however, impose a blanket ban on political advertising. Trump’s own campaign knows that a Facebook ad ban would be to its benefit. Tim Murtaugh, the campaign’s communications director, recently told Axios: “Democrats demanding internet platforms shut down political advertising will guarantee Trump’s victory in 2020. They’re idiots.” I agree.
The general election has already begun, and the rules of the game have already been set. If Facebook were to change them now, it would benefit Trump, severely disadvantage Democrats, and harm their chances of taking back the White House this time next year. Let’s focus on the most critical fight before us and take this one on later, when Democrats have actual power to change the rules.