FWIW: To ban or not to ban?

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11 mins read

Welcome to FWIW, ACRONYM’s weekly newsletter breaking down digital strategy and investments across the political spectrum. Each week, we look at how campaigns are – or aren’t – leveraging smart digital strategies to drive narratives and win elections.

For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.

Last week Twitter announced its decision to ban political advertising from its site, and some Democratic operatives, tech influencers, and Twitter personalities began debating whether Facebook and Google should follow suit. We’ve heard some changes may be coming soon, so in this week’s FWIW, we outline four reasons why banning political advertising on Facebook would have serious, negative consequences for Democrats. 

But first…

2020, by the numbers

Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has spent over $26.6 million on Facebook and Google advertising alone since the 2018 midterm elections. Many of his recent ads promoted contests to win breakfast or dinner with the President, but Judd Legum at Popular Information pointed out this week that it was all just a big lie. 🧐

You can view these charts and more at our FWIW Digital Tracking Dashboard.

Pete Buttigieg continues to dramatically outspend the rest of the field on Facebook targeting Iowa voters, and Steyer has now spent $11.5 million on Facebook and Google in his quixotic bid for the nomination. 👀

Speaking of liberal billionaires who haven’t lit enough money on 🔥yet this year, Mike Bloomberg is supposedly running for President too. We’ll be sure to add him to our digital tracking dashboard for next week. He’s spent a little bit on Facebook this year already – promoting his Beyond Carbon initiative and some of his other Bloomberg Philanthropies work. 

Here’s year-to-date spending trends for several of the current front-runners:

…and here are the top spenders on Facebook + Google from October 27 – November 2. 

Deep Dive: To ban or not to ban?

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 and Google to follow suit. Several prominent groups delivered a letter to Facebook on Monday urging for that change, and rumors have been flying all week that changes will soon be made. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Google too was considering restrictions on political ads, and POLITICO just confirmed that Facebook’s new restrictions being discussed may impact campaigns’ targeting abilities. 

Tara McGowan, ACRONYM’s founder and CEO, on Sunday penned an article in Gen by Medium outlining four major reasons why Facebook banning political advertising altogether could seriously disadvantage Democrats. Several presidential campaign Digital Directors agreed, with Maxwell Nunes from Team Pete and Megan Clasen on the Harris campaign tweeting their thoughts. 

We thought Tara’s piece was worth sharing again 📣, so here are the main points:

1️⃣ 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 three 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.

2️⃣ 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.

3️⃣ 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.

4️⃣ 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.

TL;DR

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.” We don’t agree that those demanding a ban are idiots, but we do believe they do not fully understand the grave implications this knee-jerk reaction would have.

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. 

Both Google and Facebook are extremely powerful tools for campaigns to use to get their messages out – and Progressives should carefully think through the ramifications before advocating for major platform changes in the most consequential election cycle of our lifetimes. 

BONUS… Four is Enough  🎇

On Monday, ACRONYM’s affiliated political action Committee PACRONYM  😉 announced a massive new digital program to combat the Trump campaign’s advantage online over the next year. Read all about it in the New York Times here, and watch Brad Parscale’s response on FOX News. FWIW, the campaign is selling some pretty sweet swag too:

One more thing… ➡️🤳 

That’s all for this week. But before you go, we have one more ask of you! ⚡️If you enjoy reading FWIW each week, follow us on Twitter! Help us grow our following + spread the word! Forward this email to a few friends, and click below to follow @anotheracronym on Twitter. 

Originally posted on ACRONYM. Re-posted with permission.

ACRONYM is a nonprofit organization committed to building power and digital infrastructure for the progressive movement.

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