Facebook’s political ads predicament

March 4, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC
Beata Zawrzel—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Facebook is wading its way through another one of its complicated dilemmas: Should it allow political advertisements on its service?

The company, which for years has staunchly defended free speech, initially stood by its decision to allow political ads, even though they targeted specific people and were allowed to disseminate misinformation. The company argued that banning political ads would tilt the scales in favor of political incumbents, who often had large advertising budgets and reach, and infringe on candidates’ abilities to freely speak. 

But all of that changed leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. In a reversal of its previous stance, Facebook announced plans to stop accepting new political ads one week before the election and indefinitely halt all political ads after polls closed on Election Day. The move aimed to reduce “opportunities for confusion or abuse,” Facebook said then, and coincided with then-President Donald Trump’s suggestions that he may not aid in a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced plans to lift the ban on March 4. But the company also suggested it may rethink the way it handles political ads altogether.

“We’ve heard a lot of feedback about this and learned more about political and electoral ads during this election cycle,” the company said in a blog post. “As a result, we plan to use the coming months to take a closer look at how these ads work on our service to see where further changes may be merited.”

The decision begs the question: Do political ads belong on social media at all?

Colin Sebastian, analyst at investment banking firm Baird, said political ads are likely less than 5% of Facebook’s revenue and represent a “very small part” of overall advertising. “Given how strong their [fourth] quarter was, it’s definitely hard to see any impact on their business,” he said.

Business aside, should social media have different standards than, say, broadcast TV or radio? Sarah Kreps, a Cornell University professor who focuses on the intersection of politics and tech, says no. “The problem is we have a platform that affects political debate willingly or unwillingly,” she said. “So once we start moderating that, are we posing restraints on free speech that’s dangerous in a democracy?”

Kreps admits social media companies are not exactly the same as radio or TV. The former have helped fuel political polarization by creating echo chambers and using algorithms that feed people what they’re most likely to click on. Despite that, she believes social media companies should err on the side of free speech, using policies to “turn down the political temperature” only temporarily and in extreme circumstances.

“These are really complicated questions that get at how we think about our democracy,” she said. “The answers aren’t clear cut.”

My guess is Facebook agrees. 

Danielle Abril


Last month, when Texans cranked up their heaters, the electric grid couldn’t keep up; millions lost power and at least 40 people died, although that figure is likely an undercount. Why do traditional electric grids fail? On today’s Brainstorm podcast episode, hosts Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe examine what’s needed to modernize the electric grid.  Listen to the podcast here


Arizona takes a swing at Apple and Google.  A new bill in Arizona that would require app stores to allow developers to use their own payment processing software got a vote of confidence on Wednesday. The Arizona House of Representatives voted 31-29 in favor of House Bill 2005, which would have big repercussions on Apple and Google. The tech giants currently require app creators to use their payment systems in order to collect commissions on the sale of apps and in-app purchases. The bill still has to be approved by Arizona Senate and Gov. Doug Ducey before it can become a law.

Parler v. Amazon, round two. Conservative social media site Parler is once again suing Amazon after dropping the federal antitrust lawsuit it previously filed. The new lawsuit, filed in a Washington state court, alleges that Amazon breached its contract and defamed the Parler when Amazon Web Services booted Parler offline in January. AWS made the move following the riot at the U.S. Capitol, claiming that Parler didn’t sufficiently moderate harmful content. Since then, Parler has come back online using SkySilk as its hosting service. 

SNOW falls. When we last checked on Snowflake, Aaron said the cloud database startup’s stock was “raging like a High Sierra blizzard.” The company swirled up a storm of new sales in its first quarterly report since going public in September. But on Wednesday, Wall Street’s excitement cooled after the company reported that it lost nearly $200 million in the fourth quarter, more than doubling the loss it reported in the fourth quarter of last year. In after-hours trading, Snowflake’s stock dropped 7% to a low of $230 per share, which is still almost double its IPO price of $120 per share.

Bye, bye cookies. Hello privacy?  Google says it won’t continue tracking individual users after it phases out third-party cookies within the next two years. Instead, the company says it will be using “privacy-preserving” tools that will prevent individual tracking “while still delivering results for advertisers and publishers." The company said its new technology, called federated learning of cohorts, will track people in cohorts and leaves individuals anonymous. 

Need a laugh … fast? Netflix is taking a page from TikTok’s book with its latest new feature called Fast Laughs. The new tab on Netflix’s app offers comedy clips from various programs on its service in a vertically scrollable interface a la TikTok, the social media service popular among teens. It also allows users to react to the clip with an “LOL” button, share the clip to social media, or add the program to their list of titles they want to watch. Netflix reportedly plans to include up to 100 curated clips per day on the new tab.


As people across the world get their COVID-19 vaccines, health authorities are trying to figure out the best way for them to prove they’ve been vaccinated. The World Health Organization, for example, has suggested a digital card that would allow people to offer their vaccine records to authorities at the border, writes Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. But some organizations and politicians believe vaccine passports should be the key to activities beyond travel—a reality that could exacerbate inequities for communities of color.
“A very appealing vision for some could turn into a dystopian nightmare for millions. Such restrictive passports could mean being locked out of your job, education, or even the ability to shop for food. At a moment when vaccine distribution is highlighting inequalities both locally and internationally, when communities of color and lower-income communities are being systematically underserved, vaccine passports would amplify our medical segregation,” Fox Cahn writes.


Okta is buying security startup Auth0 for $6.5 billion By Robert Hackett

Money is pouring in to A.I.-assisted drug discovery, while fewer A.I. startups are getting VC backing By Jeremy Kahn

The death of a venture capital program focused on profitability By Lucinda Shen and Anne Sraders

Dish Network customers can now place sports bets on their TVs By Chris Morris

Are all your productivity tools making you feel…unproductive? Here’s how to manage the deluge By S. Mitra Kalita

(Some of these stories may require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


The person selected to take the first U.S. commercial spaceflight is a 29-year-old female physician assistant at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The 19th gives us some insight to Hayley Arceneaux, who is scheduled to shoot into space aboard a SpaceX rocket in the fall. Arceneaux will not only become the first civilian woman to reach orbit, but also the first pediatric cancer patient as well as the youngest American in space, The 19th writes. Talk about shooting for the stars. Congratulations, Haley! 

Read More

CEO DailyCFO DailyBroadsheetData SheetTerm Sheet