November 5, 2019
IntelBrief: Social Media Platforms and Political Ads
On 30 October, Twitter announced that it would no longer accept political ads, demonstrating that not all social media companies are solely concerned with profit above all else. The decision stood in stark contrast to Facebook, which declined to make a similar decision within the past several weeks. And because Twitter is significantly smaller in scale than Facebook—the former claims an estimated 330 million users (those active once a month at least), while the latter boasts an estimated 2.41 billion active users—the impact will not be the same. However, given how influential both platforms have become in helping to shape the political opinions of so many people around the world, this case study in contrast has serious implications. There are an estimated 169 million Americans on Facebook in 2019, more than half the overall population; Twitter has an estimated 68 million. According to a Pew Research poll, 45% of Americans use Facebook to get some portion of the news they obtain (and half of those people who use Facebook to get news use that social media platform exclusively).
Political parties have conducted market research and focus groups to help learn the most effective ways to use social media to convey their messaging. In this regard, Facebook is by far the more dominant platform on which political parties spend their ad revenue. From May 2018 until October 2019, the 2020 reelection campaign for U.S. President Trump spent $21.3 million on Facebook ads, while candidates seeking the Democratic nomination spent $52 million combined. In the last two weeks, Facebook’s decision to formally eschew restricting demonstrably false political ads on its platform is a decision with monumental repercussions for American society. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook officials have repeatedly lamented that they believe it would be a ‘bad thing’ for democracy if social media companies were left to discern fact versus fiction, as it would stifle political speech. Still, in order to curry favor with governments in countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and elsewhere, Facebook agrees to censor content per the whims of the ruling administrations in these countries.
Facebook does attempt to remove what it labels ‘coordinated inauthentic’ behavior or content. It recently deleted dozens of Russian propaganda pages targeting elections in Africa. Facebook is seeking to position itself as a neutral platform that only restricts excessive violence or demeaning content, while demanding it not be held to the same standards as traditional news broadcasters. Yet even with the benefit of world-class programmers and sophisticated algorithms, Facebook has a poor track record of discerning the political from the apolitical. Facebook’s leadership, as has occurred with other social media companies like Twitter, has demonstrated sensitivity to allegations about so-called ‘liberal bias,’ and targeting conservative voices.
The upcoming December election in the U.K. regarding Brexit and the 2020 U.S. presidential elections will inevitably be shaped in some form by Facebook and other social media platforms. Twitter’s decision to end political ads might negatively impact small campaigns that cannot afford to advertise on Facebook but it will have little impact on the larger movements. As these elections approach, Facebook’s echo chambers will churn out an endless supply of ads, some deliberately misleading or downright false. Even though Zuckerberg insists that Facebook does not want to be seen as the ultimate arbiter of truth, the fact that 2.8 billion users (across all of its services) post in over 100 languages does give the company a major responsibility for regulating the content that is transmitted across its platform -- content that has proven to be corrosive to American institutions and democratic processes.
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