Why Facebook

Usually in this space at this time of  year, Spot-On spends a few minutes to make predictions. But this year, we’re putting that aside. This mess with Facebook and political ads is too overwhelming.

And dangerous.

Let’s begin with a clarification: Facebook is a fantastic tool for elected officials to reach their constituents, particularly in small numbers and targeted groups. But Spot-On – and our clients (that’s you) is all about elections. We’re politics – that’s policy.

There’s a difference. An important one that you, dear reader, understand but Facebook clearly does not.

How’d this happen? Facebook had an aggressive outreach program for members of Congress showing them how to use its pages, how to post, how to put up pictures of their grandkids, how to ‘like’ and ‘share’. For Congress this was a gift: Finally, someone – Facebook! – had organized the Internet into something regular people – Congress! – could understand!

So when it came time to run for office it was only natural that Congress would treat Facebook like a TV channel. Buy a lot of ads and get re-elected! It worked, too. And that’s where the trouble started.

Like every other tech company, Facebook doesn’t see a difference between political ads and soda ads. Political is just another brand silo and it’s one that doesn’t really generated that much revenue. For Facebook, the more speech, the better, the more connections the better, the more ‘popular’ the post, the better. Because Facebook was envisioned by happy, content, well-off people as a happy place were we can all just get along by sharing and liking and coming  gracefully and joyously to seeing each others’ point of view.

So Facebook doesn’t know what to do when faced with critical or harsh political speech or opinions. Or with deliberate and organized fraud. Or with targeted ads designed to influence opinion in nefarious not-so-nice – but eminently shareable – ways. And more than two years after the 2016 election – which featured all of these things – the COMPANY STILL DOESN’T KNOW WHAT TO DO.

Just look at the past six months.

When Facebook instituted its political ‘registration’ process in May, it closed down a number of small campaigns. Babbling about transparency and willingness to prevent a repeat of 2016, the company approached known political buyers – like Spot-On – but didn’t know or care to approach smaller campaigns. Result: Campaigns with lots of dough could stay on the platform, the local races (school boards, small town city councils) got booted until they could meet the company’s ‘standards’ for buying ads.

At the same time, Facebook initiated an ad disclaimer requirement that’s different from most state and federal law. It also launched a ‘transparency effort’ that, if carefully reviewed, gives insights into campaign strategy and spending. Both corporate policies are in addition – and usually beyond – what’s required state or federal laws.

But even that process was a joke. Some of these requirements could be avoided if ads were purchased through a buying platform. In Alabama in 2017, a bunch of Democrats decided to imitate the nefarious tactics of 2016 during the special election that got Doug Jones elected to the U.S. Senate. They put up fake pages with fake messages to create dissension and influence turn out.

Finally, last month, the New York Times – in what should be a coup de grace for the company’s lax and myopic leadership – demonstrated what savvy media buyers have know for a while: Political ad review is not done in the U.S. It’s done in another country by people who know very little about laws governing speech and elections.

Spot-On got out of the Facebook ad buying business in 2016. We didn’t know what they were going to do but we were pretty sure it would be inept. But even after a lifetime in politics and 20-plus years in Silicon Valley we were not prepared for this combination of sheer ineptitude and cynical, PR-oriented half-measures and deliberate “mis-truths”.

So we have a question for anyone still using Facebook ads as the centerpiece of their campaign.

Why?

Why do Facebook’s contractors in the Philippines or India get to rule on what your political speech should look or sound like? Why does Facebook get to set financial disclosure laws that are different from what you state requires? Why does Facebook get to go beyond what government agencies require to create a sham disclaimer system? And above all: Why is political speech being controlled by a company that cares more about its shareholders than voters or citizens?

And why are you letting your candidates play along?