It’s hard to identify another moment in history quite like this one. We are all waiting to see if a single company will announce policy changes that could substantially impact the outcome of the 2020 U.S. elections and re-shape how political campaigns are run throughout the world.
Social media platforms have come under intense pressure to minimize dissemination of inflammatory and misleading content from campaigns, allied organizations, advocacy groups, and foreign interlopers. In response, Twitter, a relatively small player in political advertising, recently announced that it’ll no longer accept political ads and will severely restrict the targeting tools available for issue advertising.
And Google, a major purveyor of political ads, announced it will allow, on all of its properties including YouTube and search, targeting political ads only by age, gender and zip code. It will continue to allow contextual advertising. With regard to assuring content accuracy, the company added that it will disallow ads containing “demonstrably false claims that significantly undermine participation or trust” in the democratic process, but instances of such action will be “very limited.”
In light of these announcements, Facebook, the big kahuna in political digital advertising, is now under more pressure than ever to revise its policies. The company recently made clear that it doesn’t fact-check political campaign ads, and won’t ban such ads even if it’s verifiably false. Instead, it’s opted to focus on increasing transparency so that the press and public can draw its own conclusions about candidates’ speech. But Facebook is reportedly considering restrictions on targeting and possibly other changes.
Now, what will campaigns look like for the rest of this cycle and beyond given the upheaval in digital platform policies? Here’s what we can look forward to:
Limiting targeting tools will lock In the advantage of campaigns that currently have big lists.
We don’t yet know what, if anything, Facebook will do. But if it follows Google’s lead and substantially curtails the targeting tools available to political campaigns, one likely outcome is that it’ll freeze in place the online fundraising advantage of campaigns that have already built big lists.
In modern campaigns, the ability to precisely target digital ads is fundamental to list building and donor acquisition. Loss of micro-targeting capabilities will substantially increase the cost of online fundraising, advantaging candidates who already have large online fundraising bases. Meanwhile, competitors in this environment will have higher list-building and donor-acquisition costs to ever assemble an online fundraising base of their own.
Fewer serious challenges to establishment candidates.
It's not just the presidential race that will be impacted. Under-funded, upstart challengers up and down the ballot will find it more difficult and costly to compete against incumbents and establishment candidates.
One reason is the dynamic cited above: Incumbents and establishment candidates are likely to have already developed formidable online or offline fundraising bases — that task would now be much more difficult and expensive for newcomers. But also, the best strategy for under-resourced campaigns that can’t afford broadcast advertising might be narrowly-targeted digital advertising — a strategy that would become less viable if Facebook follows Google. This certainly seems like bad news for democracy. Fewer new ideas will breakthrough. Fewer new voices will be heard.
More digital ad spending on less transparent platforms.
Google and Facebook have been leaders in increasing ad transparency. But if campaigns and not-for-profits are unable to get done what they need to get done on these platforms, they are likely to move a portion of their advertising dollars to smaller platforms which offer targeting tools but don’t maintain ad archives or publicly disclose significant information about the source of ad funding.
And this is especially true since some demand-side platforms that provide less transparency can still access and offer customers some Google targeting tools that are no longer available directly from Google.
Voter registration efforts will suffer.
If Facebook follows in Google’s footsteps, it’ll also have serious repercussions for not-for-profit organizations trying to bring unregistered eligible voters into the electorate. When Google restricted targeting tools, it eliminated access to its Customer Match feature which has allowed not-for-profits to match people’s online profiles with the voter file, thereby enabling them to identify and efficiently advertise to unregistered eligible voters.
Facebook’s similar tool is called Custom Audiences. Again, we don’t yet know what Facebook will do — if anything at all. But eliminating access, by voter registration organizers, to Custom Audiences would be another step backward for democracy because it would make voter registration efforts less efficient and more costly, thereby suppressing participation in elections. And it would again lock in the advantages of incumbent and establishment candidates who don’t need to expand the electorate to be competitive.
GOTV efforts will suffer, too.
GOTV efforts will also become more costly and less efficient for the same reason. Without an ability to match voter-file data with online profiles, ads cannot be targeted toward sporadic voters. That’ll mean a drop in turnout rates.
Greater relative reliance on large donors
If online targeting tools are largely unavailable, the ensuing loss in efficiency for online fundraising efforts is likely to result in a proportionally greater reliance on large donors and PACs.
Campaign messaging may become less polarizing, but also less relevant.
On the good news side, withholding targeting tools will mean that a lot of voters will likely receive ads exposing them to the ideas of their opposing party, and that could help break down echo-chambers. And it may result in appeals that are less divisive and polarizing. But by the same token, many will receive ads that just don’t interest them, making campaigns seem, to many voters, less connected to their lives.
Re-alignment of campaign budgets.
It’s plausible that if online targeting tools are made unavailable, the ensuing loss in fundraising efficiency will result in less money raised and spent on campaigns. But it’s equally plausible that campaigns will compensate for that loss in efficiency by reallocating money away from other functions and toward fundraising. So, fundraising may become a proportionally greater component of campaign budgets.
Continuing controversy over what is “political.”
It’s easy to identify and segregate for special treatment — such as targeting limitations — ads run by campaign committees, party committees or PACs. But for corporate or not-for-profit advertisers, trying to determine what is and isn’t “political” speech is a quagmire. That’s the question Twitter is now confronting in the aftermath of its decision to restrict targeting of issue ads.
And it’s the question Facebook has been desperately trying to avoid by focusing on transparency rather than fact-checking. In the near term, advertisers at the margins of “political” speech should expect lots of frustrating conversations with platform reps. However, beyond this cycle and maybe the next, it’s hard to see how platforms stick to this approach, even if regulators fail to act. Of course, fact-checking and banning untruthful speech presents its own massive ambiguities, challenges, and controversies. Ultimately, the most likely outcome may be the imperfect system currently in place for broadcast television where ads that meet community standards will run unless a pro-active challenger proves them to be untruthful.
Continuing controversy over organic content.
On the positive side, limitations on microtargeting could succeed in hindering some bad actors and misleading content. The argument is that if inflammatory and misleading ads cannot be targeted to narrow, highly susceptible and receptive audiences, then they are more likely to get identified, called out, and forcefully refuted.
But organic content is the bigger, and more challenging, problem. Indeed, to many, the willingness of the platforms to make (or consider making) changes to their advertising policies is little more than a cynical attempt to distract attention away from their unwillingness to forcefully combat abusive and misleading unpaid content. So, regardless of what Facebook and other platforms do or don’t do regarding ads, the controversy over how to combat abusive online political activity isn’t going away. At some point, the platforms and regulators will have to confront the issues presented by organic content, and those issues are even thornier.
At the end of the day, the question becomes whether policy changes that could have such a substantial impact on legitimate and healthy political communication are the right approach for a democratic society seeking to curtail illegitimate and dangerous communication. If Facebook follows Google’s lead, I guess we’ll find out.
Marc Farinella is the Senior Advisor for Strategy and External Relations for the Center for Effective Government at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. He is a former political consultant, gubernatorial chief of staff, and campaign director. He is also a former Chief Operating Officer of the Harris School.