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Big Tech draws record revenue, harsh criticism with election ads

November 2, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

The campaigns for President Donald Trump and Joe Biden spent a combined $192.3 million on Facebook advertising in the first 10 months of 2020, with over a quarter of that coming in October alone, according to data from Facebook Inc. 

The presidential campaigns for each party more than doubled their ad spending on the social network compared with the presidential candidates in the 2016 race, when experts agreed that Trump outmaneuvered Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton online.

Biden spent slightly more on Facebook than Trump this year, at $99.8 million compared with $92.5 million, though the president poured more into Alphabet Inc.’s Google, where the two campaigns have spent a combined $215.5 million on ads on Google since May 2018. That spending came largely on YouTube, including a wave of Trump ads on the video site’s homepage this week. 

But even as candidates pour tens of millions of dollars into advertising on the platforms, there is widespread discontent both about the rules the companies have set around the election and the manner in which they’ve enforced them. Case in point is a policy that Facebook announced in September to ban new political ads in the week before the election.

The ban didn’t actually keep campaigns from running ads during that period, only from introducing new ads that could introduce misleading messaging into the campaign’s final days. The logic of the move was lost on Gautam Hans, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School focused on the First Amendment. “If we’re worried about political ads and their effect on voting, voting is well underway,” he said, noting the wave of early voting that began before the moratorium took effect.

There have also been issues with execution. Facebook blocked thousands of ads, mostly from the Biden campaign, even though they’d been posted before the cut-off date. The campaign said the disruption, which Facebook attributed to a technical glitch, had likely cost them over $500,000 in donations. The company said it has not been able to resolve issues with some of the ads, and is unlikely to be able to do so during the restricted period. Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director, said the incident made it “abundantly clear that Facebook was wholly unprepared to handle this election despite having four years to prepare.” 

The Trump campaign, for its part, attempted an end-run around the policy by doing a limited run of new ads the day before the ban went into effect. These ads included language like, “Vote today!”and “Election day is today,” presumably with the intention of promoting them more heavily when those statements actually made sense.

Facebook blocked the ads, citing a policy that forbids paid messaging that misleads people about the electoral process. But it allowed other ads claiming record economic growth in the U.S. days before the statistics were actually published. Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, accused Facebook of making rules and selectively enforcing them because the company was “working against President Trump.” 

Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina who tracks political communication, said the platforms have failed to create predictable guardrails for political actors. “We still see way too much uneven enforcement policies, and way too much changing of those policies months or weeks out from a presidential election,” he said, adding that Facebook’s performance has been particularly bad. “It never ceases to amaze me that a company with so many billions in market cap can’t figure this out.”

Facebook, Google, and Twitter Inc. all found themselves at the center of a political firestorm for their handling of the 2016 election. The following year, federal lawmakers made a high-profile push to create new rules for online political advertising, but it failed, leaving platforms to develop safeguards on their own.  All three companies created databases where people could track political spending, and began developing other policies.

Last October, Twitter announced it would ban political ads altogether. Facebook and Google,also considered bans, at least for the final days or weeks before an election. Sridhar Ramaswamy, a Google executive who ran its advertising operations until 2018, said he advocated internally for dropping political ads altogether. Google also considered a pre-election moratorium on political ads on YouTube’s homepage, some of the most expensive real estate on the internet. Instead, it sold the space to the Trump campaign, Bloomberg reported in February. 

Shirin Raza, a former lawyer for YouTube, believes that Trump’s ads have been particularly damaging to the democratic process, and said the company itself bears part of the responsibility. “They say they care about election integrity, They say they care about Covid misinformation. But they continue to elevate someone who violates both those principles,” she said. “Doesn’t that make you complicit?”

A Google spokeswoman said it welcomes ads from all political advertisers as long as they comply with the company’s policies. It has restricted targeting on election ads, barring campaigns from mixing public voter records with information like searches, web browsing, and YouTube viewing histories. Facebook didn’t limit targeting, and has also infuriated Democrats with its policy of declining to fact-check political ads. (Republicans have subsequently attacked the company each time it put labels on misleading posts from President Trump.) Both companies have said they’ll stop allowing political ads in the days after the election, in an attempt to stem attempts to confuse people about the outcome of the voting. 

Not everyone who is skeptical of social media companies’ handling of political ads has supported restrictions on targeting or outright bans. People who run down-ballot campaigns have expressed concern that restrictions on targeting make it harder for them to afford ads tailored to their constituents. Some campaigns felt that the restrictions on targeting kept them from the kind of granular messaging on Facebook and Google that worked so well in 2016. “It changed buying to actually look more like TV,” said Reid Vineis, a vice president for Majority Strategies, a political ad firm.

Some people who study political speech also say a political ad ban would undermine the electoral process. “I think political advertising is important,” said Kreiss of UNC. “Most ads are mobilizational—how else do you get people to turn out to vote?”