Opinion: Why Facebook Should Sit Out The 2020 Election

Digital political advertising is a lawless Wild West. Until rules can be enforced, there's no responsible way for tech giants to participate.

It was the subtweet heard round the world.

When Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced, via tweet, that the company would no longer allow political advertising, he also took a not-too-subtle shot at Facebook’s own approach to political ads:

For instance, it‘s not credible for us to say: “We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well...they can say whatever they want! 😉”

Dorsey’s reasons were surprisingly nuanced: He said political messages should be earned rather than purchased and that the lack of regulation on political ads played a role in their decision. He also emphasized that paid advertisements and free expression are not the same thing and that ending political ads wouldn’t curb political speech. Both of Dorsey’s points were an explicit response to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's fondness for referring to paid political ads as a crucial form of free speech.

Dorsey and Twitter have made plenty of mistakes in recent years, but in this case, they made the right call. American democracy is in deep trouble, social media companies have violated our trust too many times to count and, at least in the US, there’s no way to regulate digital election ads — or to even ask the Federal Elections Commission, which has been effectively shut down under Republican control, to offer guidance. Without oversight, there’s no civically responsible way to allow digital ad buys. From my experience as a political strategist for Democratic candidates and advocacy groups, I believe Facebook should adopt the same policy.

This opinion won’t make me popular in political circles, especially with many of my colleagues whose job includes running digital ad programs. There was bipartisan anger over Twitter’s decision. Brad Parscale, President Donald Trump’s campaign manager tweeted that the decision was “yet another attempt by the left to silence Trump and conservatives.” Meanwhile, Tara McGowan, a longtime Democratic digital ads strategist and the founder of ACRONYM, tweeted a warning that if “Facebook eliminates political digital advertising right now it would give one side + candidate an enormous advantage in the election +I’ll give you a hint: it won’t be ours.”

Parscale, McGowan, and digital strategists in both parties are likely less concerned with Twitter’s actions and more concerned with the pressure it puts on Facebook. As reporter Philip Bump pointed out, political campaigns spend relatively little on Twitter compared to Facebook and other platforms because “both Facebook and Google have broader reach than Twitter and are used by more Americans.” Speaking from experience, Twitter has never been particularly effective for fundraising or mobilization, so the potential impact on how a campaign reaches out to supporters and voters online is minimal. But if other platforms follow suit, political campaigns will be scrambling to adjust their strategies and find new online outlets.

Facebook has a particularly poor record on political content. CEO Mark Zuckerberg continues to defend its policy of allowing political campaigns to run ads containing disinformation on the platform, most famously when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked him in a Congressional hearing how far she as a politician could take this policy, exposing the obvious flaws in the process. When asked by BuzzFeed News, Facebook refused to define who is and isn’t considered a politician — though it did recently determine that activist Adriel Hampton, who filed to run for governor of California for the sole purpose of running protest ads containing disinformation, doesn’t count. Facebook also recently took down a fact check on abortion with accurate information because of political pressure from two Republican senators.

Despite the events of the past three years, I still believe that the internet can be a force for good. I’m not against digital ads or targeted advertising. But Jack Dorsey is right that more regulation is needed and that ad transparency rules won’t be enough. And at least in the US, we won’t see any major changes until after the 2020 election at a minimum. In addition to the FEC not functioning, Congress has yet to pass the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, the one piece of legislation that attempts to take on some of these issues. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s only interest in regulating social media companies is centered around claims of supposed bias against conservatives that doesn’t actually exist.

Jack Dorsey’s subtweet was a clever shot at competitor Mark Zuckerberg, timed to make news just before Facebook’s earnings call. Based on Zuckerberg’s comments on that call, where he continued to conflate paid political ads containing disinformation with free expression, I doubt Twitter’s move will be enough to make Facebook feel the heat and change its own policies. But I hope Facebook takes stock and feels enough pressure to reconsider. In a perfect world, Facebook would sit out the 2020 election cycle entirely — but I’d gladly settle for Zuckerberg adopting the political ad policies suggested by some of his own employees in an open letter as a compromise.

Melissa Ryan writes Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, a weekly newsletter covering extremism and online toxicity. She is the CEO of CARD Strategies. Previously she spent a decade leading digital campaigns for nonprofits and political races, including EMILY’s List, Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, and former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

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