Tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have made quite a huge deal out of their recent policy changes, from restricting political ads to banning Donald Trump from their platforms. Motivated by a mix of good intentions and good PR, these companies have attempted to draw lines in the sand with their new policies – but have these decisions actually had the intended impact? In this week’s issue, we’ll take a look at the political ads that continue to run despite the ad bans, and how Trump maintains a backdoor to Facebook’s platform despite being banned.
There’s no Ted Cruz Cancun content in this week’s newsletter, but it was a big week for those of us following the intersection of media, tech and politics. Here’s some of what we’re reading:
Here are the top political ad spenders on Snapchat this year so far, excluding the Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs.
The biggest political advertising spender on Snapchat since early January is the progressive nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund, a group that funds various issue advocacy groups and projects. The organization started running its own ads earlier this week demanding accountability for Sens. Hawley and Cruz, and the role they played in inciting the January 6th insurrection.
These ads are targeting adults in various zip codes in Utah, Maine, Alaska, and Pennsylvania – the home states of Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Pat Toomey, all of whom voted to convict our last president.
The other top spenders on Snapchat have been a constellation of issue advocacy groups pushing for state and federal action on issues ranging from reproductive rights to small-d democratic reform.
IS TRUMP REALLY BANNED FROM FACEBOOK?
Any day now, Facebook’s Oversight Board is expected to decide whether or not Donald Trump can resume posting on the social media site. But despite being prevented from posting on the Donald J. Trump official page, his social media operation never really left the platform. Loyal deputies like Dan Scavino have been pushing out his statements and promoting his content through other Trump-affiliated pages since the moment the former president was banned.
Removing the Trump team’s ability to reach 35 million followers via the official Donald Trump page was a necessary move and a major penalty that we support, no doubt. But, if Trump’s staff and allies are able to push out his statements through other, smaller pages that his leadership PAC and former campaign apparatus control, we’d argue that the former President isn’t technically banned from the platform in the way most folks assume.
Through a collection of pages, including Team Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Dan Scavino’s own account, the same people who managed the former President’s now-banned Facebook page and who are in daily contact with him are still pushing out his official statements, media appearances, and pro-Trump content to millions of followers on Facebook.
The impact of Facebook’s policy decision is that Trump’s team is unable to use their largest page to share his content – Team Trump only has around 2.5 million followers on Facebook compared to Trump’s banned page with nearly 35 million followers – but they can still share content nonetheless. If the Facebook Oversight Board rules in Trump’s favor, that will soon change.
POLITICAL ADS SLIPPING THROUGH THE CRACKS
We’ve long argued that political advertising bans are the wrong approach to stopping misinformation online, and despite our unsolicited advice, Twitter, Google, and Facebook went ahead with them anyway. But, despite these companies being among the largest and most well-resourced in the world, we’ve found all three have struggled with basic implementation of their new policies. Enforcement has been uneven at best, and at worst…a total mess.
Twitter’s political ad ban is pretty specific, and prevents promoted political content for or against “legislation and regulations,” among other restrictions. However, as Emily Atkin recently pointed out in HEATED, the American Petroleum Institute (API) was recently able to promote content opposing energy regulations by using broad language, while environmental groups have been sidelined from advertising altogether. Twitter ultimately took down the promoted API content, but has allowed other polluters to run ads fabricating their clean energy credentials simply because their ads don’t reference specific candidates or initiatives.
Despite instituting an indefinite blanket ban on political ads starting January 13th following the armed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Google has still allowed some advertisers, including the NRA, to push political ads for days on end. While most groups’ ads that slipped through Google’s detection were taken down after spending as little as $100, the NRA spent $16,900 on political ads on Google’s platform since January 17th, before they were removed up to a week later.
Google’s “political ad ban” also isn’t exactly a total ban on political ads. Due to how it classifies political content and its sensitive event policy, ads for local municipal elections (i.e. advertisements for the New York City mayoral election) are still allowed to run during this time.
Facebook’s troubles implementing their own ad ban seems to be the messiest, as the company takes an extremely broad definition of political content, and is constantly swarmed by advertisers looking to bypass their automated approval process. Under Facebook’s current approval process, organizations can achieve hundreds of thousands of impressions and spend several thousand dollars before their political ads are flagged and taken down.
POLITICO’s Zach Montellaro noted that one group spent $40,000 in a one-week period during the ads blackout. Facebook’s own transparency library shows that right-wing media site PragerU spent over $15,000 in the past 30 days on political ads, and we also noticed a few progressive groups slipping through the cracks with some widely distributed fundraising ads.
It’s kind of a gray area, but fundraising and acquisition ads from political-ish nonprofits aren’t technically banned, as long as their language avoids keywords that may be seen as political. The below ad from political advocacy group Sunrise Movement is a good example of that – it has been up for 6 days and counting, and uses language carefully crafted to avoid keywords that would trigger Facebook’s ire.
More outrageous than those enforcement errors and blurry policies is the open fact that the Daily Wire and Ben Shapiro never stopped running ads fighting political culture wars and attacking President Biden since the insurrection at the Capitol. It’s no surprise that there have been reports of Facebook’s policies favoring far-right media personalities – the below ads are not considered political by the company, and we are unable to see their spending or targeting information.
All of this is to say we didn’t report this to snitch on people for doing a bad job at implementing their policies, or to praise advertisers at successfully getting around the rules. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are some of the world’s largest companies, and we’ve already seen the profound impact they’ve had on our elections, our information ecosystem, and our society (for better or worse). In just a short period of time, it’s become glaringly apparent that half-baked policies that lack proper oversight and enforcement can have the opposite intended effects, like allowing inflammatory political content to fly under the radar, potentially exacerbating the spread of misinformation.
That’s why we adamantly opposed blanket bans of political ads in the first place. Some of the most effective tactics in delivering factual, trusted information to citizens can be through paid advertising. So when the biggest social media platforms rush through changes that are clearly meant as PR moves more than actual meaningful policy moves, they should think more carefully and be far more transparent about implementation before charging forward.
KEEP IT GOING
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