Political advertising is still allowed on Facebook, where its accuracy is not policed. When reaffirming that policy recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asserted a need to be careful about adopting more rules that restrict what people can say. He doesn’t think that censoring politicians is right. “Although I’ve considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past, and I’ll continue to do so … so far I’ve thought we should continue,” he said. “Ads can be an important part of voice—especially for candidates and advocacy groups the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates.”
Read: Twitter is not America
One reason Twitter and Facebook are diverging on this question may be that Twitter is a lesser platform for political advertising compared with Facebook. So far this year at Facebook, Wired reports, “the Democratic candidates for president have spent a collective $32 million on Facebook advertisements; Donald Trump has spent $13.7 million on Facebook ads in 2019 alone.”
By contrast, “political ad spend for the 2018 US midterms was <$3M” on Twitter, the company’s CFO tweeted. The Guardian notes that Twitter’s political-advertising operation “had just 21 advertisers across the entirety of the EU during the parliamentary elections this year,” and posits that Dorsey’s announcement “turned a weakness into a strength, cutting off a minuscule revenue stream to heap pressure on his main competitor.”
Business implications aside, would democracy be better off if Facebook followed Twitter and banned political ads or if pressure to do so led it to police ads for accuracy? I’m baffled by everyone who is confident in either position, given how little we know about key variables.
First, remember that Facebook is global.
Facebook has 270 million users in India, 130 million users in Indonesia, 120 million users in Brazil, 82 million users in Mexico, 68 million users in the Philippines, 58 million users in Vietnam, 46 million users in Thailand, and 37 to 38 million users each in Egypt, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. A ban on political ads might be good for some countries and bad for others.
Annie Lowrey: Don’t trust Facebook
Even looking narrowly at the United States, it is hard to know exactly how much Facebook political ads affect any campaign; whether their effect is similar or different in federal, state, and local elections; where campaign dollars now spent on Facebook would go if the platform banned political advertising; whether a ban would advantage or disadvantage Republicans or Democrats; or whether eliminating political Facebook ads would advantage incumbents or challengers.
“Incumbent politicians have tons of money and a huge megaphone to spread their message,” Senator Ted Cruz argued recently. “If you ban political advertising from social media, how on earth is any upstart challenger supposed to beat an incumbent? If you think America would be better with more career politicians, in both parties, entrenched in power for life, then Twitter’s proposed ban is a good idea.”