President Donald Trump’s campaign, the largest buyer of political advertising on Facebook, is raising alarms and rallying up its base over a remark made by a Facebook executive about the future of political ads on the platform.
On Wednesday afternoon, the vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook, Carolyn Everson, said at an Axios conference that the social media network would not limit precise targeting of political advertisements or ban false statements on its platform. She later clarified that while these limits are unlikely, nothing is “off the table,” causing an immediate and extreme reaction from Trump’s 2020 campaign team.
Facebook’s targeted advertising has been an essential tool to the Trump 2020 team, allowing its tailor-made messaging to be seen by specific demographics, like white female suburban voters or high school educated southern men.
In a string of tweets, Gary Coby, the digital director for the president’s reelection campaign, argued the change would ensure that “more small-dollar grassroots donations go to Facebook’s pocket” and “silence voters,” while limiting turnout. He continued to call the comments “very dangerous” and a “huge blow to speech” and said a change would empower corporations, established politicians, and the rich “above the people.”
A few minutes later, the official Trump campaign account tweeted a similar message to its 1.3 million followers. “IMPORTANT,” the tweet read, with two siren emojis surrounding the word. “Facebook wants to take important tools away from us for 2020,” it continued. “Tools that help us reach more great Americans & lift voices the media & big tech choose to ignore! They want to raise prices to put more of your hard earned small dollar donations into their pockets.”
No one from Facebook has indicated that they are actively considering an end to ad-targeting tools. The company announced today, in fact, that it would roll out a set of new tools that would give advertisers more control over where their messaging appears.
The Trump campaign is the largest buyer of targeted ads on the platform by a longshot, spending $15.4 million year to date, and with a seat in the Oval Office, hardly making them a “smaller voice.”
But the Trump campaign recently found itself caught in a media firestorm for using Facebook to make provably false claims about issues like border security, immigration, and to spread conspiracy theories about his potential competitors, like former Vice President Joe Biden.
Before Congress last month, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the platform’s choice to allow politicians to potentially spread misinformation in targeted advertisements, saying that his company stood for free expression and freedom of speech. He also penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal committing to his stance. “Facebook shouldn’t be making so many important decisions about speech on its own,” he wrote.
When Twitter founder Jack Dorsey announced that he would ban all political ads from his platform, Zuckerberg only doubled down on his idea.
So what is does the Trump campaign have to gain by warning that Facebook might be about to ban their messaging?
Jesse Ferguson, former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, calls this business as usual for the Trump campaign, saying it falls in line with Trump’s larger reelection strategy.
“His message only sells if he has someone who’s trying to keep him down,” he explained. “He is the perpetual victim in search of an oppressor, and sometimes that’s business, sometimes that’s tech, sometimes it’s Democrats, and sometimes it’s the media. But the one consistent thing is this shtick only works if he’s set up against someone who’s trying to bring him down.”
But even if this is a campaign strategy, there is likely a real worry at Trump HQ about what an end to targeted ads on Facebook could mean for the president, who heavily relied on the site to generate the bulk of his $250 million in online donations during the 2016 elections.
“Our biggest incubator that allowed us to generate that money was Facebook,” said Donald Trump’s former digital director and current campaign manager Brad Parscale in a 2016 Wired interview. “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing,” he said. “Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising.”
Lately, Facebook has been important to Trump’s anti-impeachment message. An analysis by Laura Edelson, a researcher at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, found that the campaign ran more than 6,000 targeted ads that mentioned the word “impeachment” during the first week of the formal inquiry, calling it a “hoax” and “total scam,” and spending as much as $1.4 million. The ads, Edelson found, targeted four minority congresswoman in particular.
On Wednesday, Google announced that it would limit targeted political advertising to certain categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level), adding to the fear that Facebook would act next.
And of course, money talks. The Trump campaign made it clear that they don’t want to spend any more money to get the same results with its advertising. The campaign claimed that the company was attempting to take away “hard earned small dollar donations” from Trump supporters in order to pad their pockets.
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