Political Facebook is no longer plug-and-play. To run ads on the platform "related to politics and issues of national importance," page administrators must now verify their individual identities and send their pages through an approval process.
The new rules apply to anyone creating ads, not just political campaigns, and come as part of the company's response to brutal criticism of its handling of Russian hackers, Cambridge Analytica data-scrapers and other bad actors on the platform. Thanks, Vladimir!
Like much on the social network, the political verification process is opaque. I've personally spoken with digital staff whose status hung in limbo for days or even weeks, a crippling situation in a political environment that packs a month of news into a typical day. My own passport photo was rejected weeks after it had been approved (too much glare in the image, apparently), and I only found out because ads placed for clients suddenly started being rejected.
Many of us in the field have been baffled by what seems to be an arbitrary process for determining what qualifies as "political" content, with some even raising civil rights concerns. I've personally had client ads with identical text but different (and innocuous) photos meet different fates. In one case, the system flagged only one out of a cluster of seven highly similar variants as political. Weird!
Besides verifying admins and pages, Facebook will now preserve political ads in a publicly searchable archive, a trove of data that should be valuable enough to campaigns to offset the hassle. Facebook and Google have traditionally been an advertising black hole: ads on the platforms were not disclosed, and campaigns could only monitor what their opponents were doing when they or their supporters encountered ads organically. Now that we can see what the other guys are up to, will it encourage campaigns to pour money into digital response?
This idea came up in a recent discussion with the team at DSPolitical, and I think it's an effect to watch for. Campaigns are no strangers to opposition research and rapid response, and now they can scroll through the images, words and video opposing campaigns and outside groups are promoting on Facebook. The archive includes a sense of how much money is behind a given ad buy — though not the exact amount — and an indication of the targeting involved. Digital staff can understand what they're actually up against, giving them ammunition in the eternal fight for a bigger slice of the campaign budget. Democrats, don't forget that Republican congressional candidates outspent you four-to-one online in the last months of campaign 2016.
These changes won't be the last: Facebook and the other big digital platforms will surely spin up new initiatives as they try to stay ahead of the backlash from regulators, shareholders and the public. In late July, for example, the company banned 32 pages and Instagram accounts whose content had been tap-dancing on the raw nerves in our culture — a favorite tactic of Russia’s Internet Research Agency in the 2016 election cycle. As more politicians encounter fake accounts spreading online smears aimed directly at them personally, expect the heat to rise.
Another possible result of the new attention to Bad Hombres on digital platforms? A spotlight on campaign cybersecurity. Most campaigns have gotten away with playing fast and loose with passwords and permissions in the past, but the political world must wake up to the idea that we’re perfect targets for hacking, phishing and spoofing.
We’ve already seen reports of phishing attacks directed at senatorial campaigns, which can lead to the same kind of leaks that exposed John Podesta’s emails to world in 2016. Campaigns should take basic preventive measures right now, and digital consultants should rise to the occasion with comprehensive solutions to keep their clients secure. Think of it as a business opportunity.
In a much broader sense, we all need to wake up and realize that the political internet isn’t a playground: it’s a battlefield. Whether we know it or not, the opposition wants to take down our candidates and tarnish our causes. Now that we can see at least the Facebook content coming our way, we have only ourselves to blame if we let them do it unopposed.
Quick note: I’m excited to announce the release of the 2018 edition of my comprehensive digital campaigning guide, now titled How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections. It’s available in the Kindle Store and as a PDF on Epolitics.com, so get your copy today.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.