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As Canadians examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 59th U.S. presidential election, campaign strategists are busy unpacking the role Facebook played and the changing expectations of the world’s largest social network. From grassroots fundraising to micro-targeting undecided voters in critical elections, Facebook has set itself apart as the leading digital advertising platform for political campaigns.
The extent of Facebook’s influence came to light in 2017 when CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism that $81 million (U.S.) had been spent on its platform for the 2016 election.1 Since then, Facebook has positioned itself as the cornerstone of any campaign strategy across the political spectrum.
“Once sought for insights by both sides for the capabilities of its platform, Facebook has become a punching bag for both parties.”
When Facebook announced its restriction of political ads during the week leading up to the 2020 election, it aimed “to reduce opportunities for confusion or abuse.” That’s hardly a phrase that instils confidence when trying to decide the leader of the free world. The question asked by many was why now? Facebook has ardently opposed any type of ban on its political ads in past years, so what changed? To answer this question, let’s look holistically at Facebook’s role in the U.S. political ecosystem before analyzing its potential implications for Canada.
Restrictions over Revenue
Facebook finds itself in an unprecedented position at the centre of a political battle between Democrats and Republicans. Once sought for insights by both sides for the capabilities of its platform, Facebook has become a punching bag for both parties.
The Democrats loudly chastised Facebook for its lack of regulation of misinformation, a dangerous proposition when the election hinged on the backs of undecided voters. Republicans complained of censorship in favour of leftist ideology. Whatever merit each side has to its claim, it’s clear Facebook is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Jodi Butts, expert panelist for the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation, recently described the existential crisis Facebook is facing as a search for its purpose:
“When, as a firm or a public figure, you find yourself politically bruised from both the left and the right, it tends to suggest one of two things. The first possibility is that you have effectively held to the ideological centre and are thus bound to displease many on both sides — especially the extremes of both wings. The other potential reason is that you have lost sight of your purpose and become so transactional that neither side can be satisfied. When it comes to Facebook, the latter charge seems closest to the truth.”2
Following the 2016 election, Facebook played it safe. It stood by passively as political parties tore each other apart, leveraging its platform. Facebook’s doctrine was rooted in neutrality. Its position was to let information flow freely and let users decide what to believe. This approach, as we see now, ultimately failed.
So, what happened?
With the balance of political power still undecided, and an unprecedented scenario of two runoff elections in Georgia, Facebook has doubled down on its restrictions for at least another month.
Democratic backlash against the extended policy has been vocal. Campaigns and agencies alike are echoing sentiment from across the aisle — Facebook’s restriction is a censorship of political information to target undecided voters and share legitimate election information. In Georgia, Democrats are on the verge of flipping two historically Republican seats, but Republicans have already fundraised $28 million more than their Democratic candidate opponents through Super PACs and direct fundraising.3
“While trying to appease both parties, it may have inadvertently positioned itself as the lynchpin of success or failure of the next administration.”
Online fundraising is key to Democratic strategy. The consequences of Facebook’s advertising ban, intended or not, will have a negative effect on the Democrats’ ability to execute. The party now loses critically important fundraising tools leading up to the election. With the entire nation looking at Georgia, the Democrats’ strength in grassroots mobilization has been weakened considerably.
This has been the unintended consequence of Facebook’s righteous censorship. While trying to appease both parties, it may have inadvertently positioned itself as the lynchpin of success or failure of the next administration. As Facebook contemplates future removal of the restrictions, Democratic strategists are already scrambling. If they can win this David versus Goliath battle without Facebook, then the tides may shift on how reliant campaigns will be on this platform in the future.
A key question now is: how should Facebook respond?
It’s not clear what Facebook’s next step will be, but if we accept Jodi Butts’ analysis then it seems Facebook’s aspiration to be neutral has been misguided. Division has already been sowed on the platform, not as a glitch, but as a central part of its profit model.
Facebook made a critical error when it first announced a restriction of political ads leading up to election week and now temporarily in the following weeks. It was a righteous decision with the hopes of mitigating severe public backlash in recent years, but in the battle of misinformation, Facebook has potentially crippled a political party from securing power in the Senate. By restricting paid advertising, Facebook hoped to curb a flurry of right-wing propaganda shared across its platform. However, the result also stops the flow of legitimate paid content around voting and election information.
Facebook must now engineer a longer-term solution to continue combating misinformation without inhibiting permissible expression. It played a dangerous game trying to appease both sides and the quest for neutrality has been lost.
What does this mean for Canada?
Of course, Facebook’s decisions in the United States do not exist in isolation and Canadian political operatives are keenly watching what happens there. The two countries may have different advertising climates, but they are confronting similar issues.
Online political advertising in the U.S. is very much akin to the Wild West. Advertisers face little regulation, and the deepest pockets and largest ad budgets are needed to survive. Canada, in contrast, dictates political advertising under a lens of strict scrutiny and transparency. During the 2019 federal election, the combined spend by all three parties for online advertising was $7.8 million — less than 10 per cent of what was spent in the 2016 U.S. election.4
The dollar goes much further in Canadian political advertising. Restrictive measures around campaign spending and allocation mean strategists must plan media buys resourcefully. Even with these restrictions, Facebook saw itself leap ahead of its competitors. This was due in part to the much stricter policies enacted by Google and Twitter around advertising in Canada. Nevertheless, campaign strategists rely heavily on Facebook to maximize reach and influence. In its 2020 provincial election, the B.C. Liberal Party spent more than $40,000 a day on Facebook.5 Wild West or not, online advertising, especially on Facebook, is central to Canadian political strategies.
The policy restrictions set forth by Facebook will undoubtedly make their way to Canada, as it continually scrambles to adapt to the climate it has helped foster. The targeting of susceptible populations and harvesting of misinformation present legitimate concerns for consumers, policy-makers, and Facebook itself. But the majority of actors lobbying for change are, ironically, using the platform themselves to gain influence over its users. In other words, they may not like living with it, but they can’t live without it.
In Canada, with a federal election looming as early as the spring of 2021, key decisions from Facebook become ever more pressing. With already tight budgets, strategists will need to define alternative allocations and think outside the box to capture the same effect Facebook may have in the witching hour of the election. Strategists already have to work around an Elections Canada ban of online advertising the day of an election and a potential Facebook restriction will only make things harder.
Facebook may aspire to play a neutral role in Canadian election activity, but the policies it commits to will have a substantial impact on the strategies our political parties use, and ultimately the government we elect. Until it makes key decisions about political advertising and targeting in the Canadian context, political actors wait at the mercy of the social media giant.
Will it be an aggregator? A publisher? Or a neutral information vessel? All signs point to Facebook’s Canadian policy following its U.S. lead and opting out of advertising altogether in the next election cycle. For Canadian political leadership, Facebook can’t decide quickly enough.