Two tech giants lifted their political ad bans in the past week amid a potentially record-setting Senate special election. Facebook claims their platform is a vital tool in a campaign’s ability to disseminate information — yet data show there may be a financial incentive to loosen restrictions.
Sarah Schiff, Facebook product manager, said in a Dec. 15 blog post that the company had listened to the “feedback from experts and advertisers across the political spectrum” about the importance of reaching voters for the January runoff. But Schiff added they will continue to employ rigorous fact-checking, and all ads will be authorized by the platform.
“And, we will continue to prohibit any ad that includes content debunked by third-party fact-checkers or delegitimizes the Georgia runoff elections,” Schiff said.
Facebook earned nearly $70 billion from advertisements in 2019, which accounted for 98% of the company’s total revenue, CNN reported. Yet both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg have stated the company’s political ad revenue accounts for a fraction of their profit. Sandberg told Bloomberg in 2019 that Facebook’s ad money “isn’t worth the political fuss.” But records show advertisers have already put hundreds of millions into the race.
John Link, vice president of the advertising analytics firm AdImpact, told FOX Business in November the Georgia runoffs could see half a billion dollars in ad spending given the pace of spending at the time. The firm announced on Twitter Dec. 9 that total ad spending in Georgia had hit $403 million.
“At current pace, $500 million would be top end, but achievable,” Link said. “Given the overall importance and national attention these races are receiving, it would not surprise me. Right now our call is $450-500 million combined between both races. “
— AdImpact, formerly Advertising Analytics (@ad_impact) December 9, 2020
President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden’s respective campaigns collectively dumped around $200 million on Facebook ads before the 2020 presidential election, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported. The number, according to WSJ, does not include outside spending numbers. The president-elect narrowly edged Trump in Facebook ad spending, Bloomberg reported — Biden spent approximately $99.8 million while Trump pumped $92.5 million into Facebook’s ad coffer. The two campaigns additionally spent nearly $215 million on Google ads since May 2018, according to Bloomberg.
Facebook announced Tuesday it will allow advertisers to target Georgia voters with political ads dedicated to the state’s Jan. 5 run-off election. But even as the platform will allow Georgia-specific ads beginning Dec. 19, the company’s previous ad ban will remain in effect for the 49 other states. The company’s decision hit the airwaves only days after Google removed its own post-election ad ban. (RELATED: Facebook Unbans Political Ads In Georgia, But Only For ‘Authorized’ Advertisers)
Zuckerberg, upon announcing the initial ban on political issue ads, said he was an advocate of speech at all levels, but his company couldn’t properly fight outright misinformation without some level of control.
“It’s important that campaigns can run get out the vote campaigns, and I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims,” Zuckerberg said in a statement announcing the initial ban.
There have been more than 1.6 million ballot requests so far for the Georgia runoffs, which equals roughly two-thirds of the total for the Nov. 3 general election, according to WSJ. Data from University of Florida professor Michael McDonald shows over 200,000 ballots have been returned, as of Dec. 11, WSJ reported.
Democratic lawmakers and operatives criticized the ban as a political move by Big Tech. Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy told Politico Facebook’s prior ad ban amounted to an effort to politicize the platform. Murphy claimed the company had effectively asserted the full weight of its power to influence voters’ decisions.
“Every time they put their foot on the political scales like this, with no warning and without any ability for campaigns to react and readjust, it reminds me why we need to rethink the size and power of Facebook moving forward,” Murphy said.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss told the Washington Post in a statement that Facebook’s decision to lift the ban was “long overdue.” Boss said it was especially important given the state had already begun in person voting. Still, according to Boss, the platform should focus on disinformation rather than stifling the political process.
“These online platforms must focus on rooting out the spread of organic disinformation about our elections, and banning ads is the opposite of a solution,” Boss said.
Republicans also commended Facebook for partially lifting its Ban. Republican Texas Senator Ted Cruz said on Twitter that it’s up to congress to keep them in check.
“About time @facebook lifted its ban on political ads,” Cruz tweeted. “Disappointed this move will only be temporary. The fact remains that #BigTech poses a significant threat to our democracy. Congress must continue working to hold them accountable.”