Facebook's election week ad ban is 'a PR stunt' that won't stop disinformation but could hurt down-ballot candidates, digital campaign strategists say
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Facebook's decision to ban new campaign advertising ahead of Election Day has left digital campaign strategists irritated and exasperated. The ad ban is a mere public relations gimmick that would do little to stop disinformation on the social network, operatives who specialize in targeting voters online told Insider. And they fear it could hurt down-ballot candidates for whom the final days towards November 3 are crucial when voters start paying closer attention to local races. Facebook announced the changes on Thursday saying the new rule would help combat disinformation closer to Election Day. But the social network leaves a huge window for the kind of disinformation the platform says it's trying to protect against to reach voters anyway. The ad ban would take effect weeks after millions of people have already voted by mail, and critics say it would be too little too late. "This is a PR stunt to distract from Facebook's miserable record for allowing really dangerous information to flourish on their platforms," said Eli Kaplan, a founder of the Democratic digital firm Rising Tide Interactive. Democrats often feel disadvantaged on Facebook in particular. Their strategists worry that instead of slowing disinformation, the changes would hamper their ability to counter false information spread on Facebook through organic posts — made by individual users and groups that aren't boosted by ad money — in the final week of the election. A powerful network of conservative personalities, media outlets, and pages that have huge followings and routinely rank among the top-performing posts from US Facebook pages, dominate the network's news rounds and effectively spread right-leaning viewpoints. "From an advertising perspective, if Trump is pushing disinformation, paid ads are our best way to push to swing voters to correct the record," one Democratic online fundraising strategist told Insider. "I feel like this is such a hollow move, but in aggregate it's very unfair to the Democratic Party." But the Trump campaign also says the decision could hurt its efforts and has labeled Facebook's changes an attack by the "Silicon Valley Mafia." Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager told Insider that the social network was "silencing the President at the most important time of all." A big loophole Facebook is not banning all political and issue ads from its platform in the waning days of the election. Rather, it will not allow any new political ads to launch starting October 27, through Election Day. That means that campaigns must get their advertisements rolling before the deadline, but they can program them to run through November 3. Advertisers can also adjust their audience targeting during that blackout period. In a lengthy post announcing the platform changes — which also include a beefed-up Voter Information Center and a partnership with Reuters to verify results — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote that "in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims. So in the week before the election, we won't accept new political or issue ads." What concerns Democrats more, Kaplan said, is that old fashioned organic content — made by individual users and pages, pumped into people's news feeds and amplified through shares, likes, and comments — play the biggest role in spreading disinformation, rather than ads. For example, President Donald Trump has repeatedly and baselessly cast doubt on the security of mail-in voting using both his Twitter and Facebook accounts, which have tens of millions of followers. Facebook users would still be permitted to see and share that content during election week. Facebook and Twitter have begun to attach warning labels that direct users to reliable information to problematic Trump posts, but the posts themselves remain up.
'They'll just get their ads loaded up beforehand" Digital strategists were skeptical that Facebook's new ad rule would have any meaningful impact on the way campaigns approached advertising. "I don't think it's going to have an effect for very sophisticated campaigns," Kaplan said. "They'll just get their ads loaded up beforehand...We know what audiences to hit with what ads, and we can make decisions on day 8 and adjust those budgets in real time." The Democratic online fundraiser who talked to Insider said his campaigns would simply keep the texts of their ads more generic than usual. "As much as Democrats hate Facebook, we feel like we have no choice but to run ads on their platforms," he said. Facebook is especially vital for raising money, he said, as it allows campaigns to build up their email lists and target hyper-specific constituencies using data about voters they already possessed. Both Democratic strategists who talked to Insider acknowledged the rule change could hinder a candidate's ability to tout any last-minute endorsements, or target voters in swing states with fact-checks if an opponent circulated false or inaccurate information about them. Kaplan warned that smaller races, which he said often begin using Facebook later in a cycle, could also face repercussions. "There are a lot of down-ballot campaigns that get their stuff together really late and it's one of the last things that people get to," he said. Vincent Harris, a longtime Republican digital strategist in Texas, told Insider that campaigns large and small should simply "plan ahead and use Facebook," which he called "the best use of campaign money this cycle." Plenty of other places on the internet for campaign ads With Facebook narrowing opportunities to reach voters with ads in the last week of the election, digital strategists told Insider that they would likely shift ad spending elsewhere during the final week of the campaign. There are plenty of other places on the internet to serve ads to voters such as YouTube, Google, and targeting voters online based on cookies and other user data when they visit websites. Campaigns will also deploy their email lists, which remain a powerful way to fundraise and get a message out in the closing stretches. Harris told Insider that while Facebook remained the most valuable platform in this election cycle, his team was also experimenting with other options like Parler, a conservative social network that draws heavily from Twitter in its design. Facebook would also remain a priority for Democrats, and their campaigns would have to work within the social media giant's parameters. "I think it further underscores how much power Facebook has over the entire global ecosystem," the Democratic strategist said.
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Facebook says it will ban all political ads indefinitely after polls close for the November 3 election (FB)
Summary List Placement Facebook announced Wednesday that it will ban all political ads indefinitely after the...Summary List Placement Facebook announced Wednesday that it will ban all political ads indefinitely after the November 3 election. The announcement comes as pressure on Facebook grows to counter misinformation in the wake of the election. Last week, Facebook said it would ban political ads that prematurely claimed victory while votes were still being counted, as well as ads making claims of rampant voter fraud without evidence. Now, Facebook says it will ban all political ads for an indefinite period after polls close on Election Day. The social network also said it will show notifications at the top of people's News Feeds informing people whether a victor in the presidential election had been determined. Facebook has faced escalating scrutiny for its handling of political ads in recent months, including its policy against fact-checking ads bought by political candidates. The company also previously said it would block all political candidates from buying new ads in the month preceding the election in order to give moderators enough time to process them. Campaigns at all levels of government have bet heavily on Facebook advertising in recent years. Since July 1, the Trump campaign has spent $65.9 million on Facebook ads, while the Biden campaign bought $45.8 million worth of ads on the platform in the same time frame, according to data collected by the NYU Ad Observatory.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why electric planes haven't taken off yet
As Facebook struggles to fight misinformation ahead of the 2020 elections, Google is escaping the spotlight (GOOG, GOOGL)
Summary List PlacementFacebook was thrust back into the spotlight last week after BuzzFeed News published a...Summary List PlacementFacebook was thrust back into the spotlight last week after BuzzFeed News published a leaked memo from a whistleblower who accused the social media network of extensive failures to combat political and electoral misinformation around the world. Amid a steady drumbeat of reports from media and researchers over the past several months, Facebook has repeatedly come under fire for mishandling crises, like its delayed response to threats of violence against anti-racism protesters and an unwillingness or reluctance to enforce its own rules in cases involving high-profile politicians. With each new revelation about Facebook, however, researchers say another tech giant is continuing to dodge scrutiny: Google. "Google is really getting a pass on transparency by just staying under the radar," Laura Edelson, a researcher who studies political ads and misinformation at New York University, told Business Insider. "No one's talking about Google." Google has faced pushback over the years for how its subsidiary YouTube deals with misinformation, hate speech, and radical content posted by users. But when it comes to paid ads across its various products — YouTube, Google search results, Gmail, and ads served on websites across the internet through Google Ads — regulators, journalists, and the public have paid much less attention. While Facebook still faces major backlash over how it moderates content generated by both users and advertisers, some researchers have praised the social network on the latter issue for actions like sharing more detailed data with researchers and widening its net to track "issue" ads. But between Facebook's corrective steps and its initial missteps, researchers worried that it's taken some deserved heat off of Google. "We spend a lot of time talking about Facebook, and a big part of why is that Facebook is doing some things," Edelson said, adding: "Google doesn't make that much stuff transparent, which is part of why no one is talking about Google." "Google owns a larger share of the online advertising market, but has looser standards governing political ads. The company also provides the public with less information about those ads. That means that users may be inundated with manipulative or misleading ads without knowing it," Michael Clauw, a spokesperson for the research group Tech Transparency Project, told Business Insider. (TTP has reportedly received funding from Oracle, a Google competitor). Google disputed those characterizations, with a spokesperson telling Business Insider the company is "deeply committed to delivering the highest standards in transparency, choice and controls in advertising." But multiple researchers said that by narrowly defining political ads, disclosing only basic details about them, and at times, failing to detect political ads or advertisers in the first place, Google may be masking the extent to which Americans are encountering misleading information while using its products in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Tech reigns in the Wild West of digital ads While Facebook has pulled in the majority of digital political ad revenue in the US during this election cycle — nearly 60% as of February, according to eMarketer — Google still captured almost one-fifth of the market, bringing in more than $240 million. By the companies' count, since they launched political ad-tracking archives in May 2018, Facebook says advertisers have spent nearly $1.7 billion, while Google says that number is just shy of $400 million. But researchers and campaign finance experts say those numbers don't paint the full picture of who is spending money to sway voters, nor do the numbers say where and how the companies are spending it, particularly in Google's case. "The main source of the problem is the piecemeal platform-by-platform approach to political ad transparency," Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center. "There are no laws requiring that platforms make political ads publicly accessible. It's entirely a self-regulatory effort." Unlike TV and radio ads, which are regulated by the Federal Elections Commission and Federal Communications Commission, internet ad companies operate largely on their own terms. In a 2019 study, researchers concluded that Google and Facebook deliberately undermined the FEC's efforts to regulate digital ads. "Digital advertisements used to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election lacked disclaimers stating who paid for them," the researchers said, arguing it was the result of Google and Facebook putting "profit ahead of the public interest in seeking exemptions from disclaimer requirements, refusing to change the size of their advertisements and downplaying the deceptive potential of political ads." Left to their own devices, tech platforms have come up with wildly different approaches for detecting and determining what counts as a political ad, what advertisers need to disclose, how much to share with researchers and users, and how to enforce those rules. And it has largely fallen to researchers to hold them accountable. Slipping through the cracks One issue researchers raised with Google's approach is its narrow definition of political ads (or election ads, as Google refers to them). Google considers election ads to be anything that mentions federal- or state-level elected officials, candidates, or political parties, as well as state-level ballot measures and initiatives. But researchers say that misses a crucial category of ads: issue ads, which address often highly divisive political and social issues that are frequent targets for bad actors. "The entire category of ads that tend to be misinformation or that are most likely to be misinformation, they specifically exclude," Edelson said. "Many of the ads that were funded by Russia [during the 2016 US elections] didn't mention candidates at all. They instead focused on the divisive, social-political issues," Fischer said. "Those ads would very likely be included in Facebook's archive because Facebook has a broad definition of political ads," he said, adding: "The fact that Facebook does have a broad standard of political ad ... makes it much more possible to do research and oversight of the kinds of communications that are being disseminated to voters." In an effort to combat the micro-targeted ads that got Facebook into hot water, Google did announce in November that it would be "limiting election ads audience targeting to the following general categories: age, gender, and general location (postal code level)." But researchers also pointed to how Google actually implements and enforces the limited restrictions it has imposed, bringing up concerns around the level of detail and searchability of data in its ad archive and the rigor with which it verifies that political advertisers are being properly included. "The Google archive provides only very big ranges of the dollar amounts that are spent on a particular ad," Maggie Christ, a senior researcher at the Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider. "It makes it difficult, especially if you're trying to match up with what a group is reporting to the FEC," she said. "It might mean that it can all be accounted for on Google, or it might mean that tens of thousands of dollars are unaccounted for and might be running on a completely different platform." Additionally, when Google removes an ad for violating one of its policies or when the advertiser purchases the ad through a third party, researchers can't actually view the ad's content in the archive, making it more challenging to understand how advertisers might be trying to manipulate voters. "Even in the archives, you couldn't go and uncover it and see which candidate that ad might've mentioned and what the content might've been," Christ said. Last year, The Wall Street Journal also reported that the archive was "fraught with errors and delays" and had omitted ads run by the campaigns of former Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Google defended its archive and updates it says it has made in recent months, with a spokesperson pointing to how it's "now updated daily with even more information on who purchased the ad, how much they spent, how many people saw it, how they were targeted and in what geographies." Trust that they're verifying Absent any oversight from federal regulators, researchers ultimately must take Google's word that it's effectively enforcing its policies — that its AI systems are catching political ads, that it verifies whether advertisers are who they tell Google they are, or that it's able to detect and remove ads that violate its myriad policies against false claims, clickbait, electoral misinformation, and hacked material. So far, they aren't convinced. "We know at least anecdotally that their enforcement of their existing rules is poor," Edelson said. "We know that they are not doing a great job keeping political ads off of Gmail, but they just said: 'Well, we don't have political ads on Gmail and therefore we don't make political ads on Gmail transparent.'" Wired recently reported that a search marketer in New York, as an experiment, was able to bypass Google's political ad detection systems simply by omitting a candidate's first or last name. When contacted about potential loopholes the marketer had identified, Google still declined to consider the search terms where advertisers wanted the ad to appear. "If you're searching for voting and someone's bidding on those keywords, you might want to see what they're saying ... That's a ripe target for disinformation about voting," Republican digital strategist Eric Wilson told Wired. Alex Stamos, Facebook's former security chief and now a researcher at Stanford, tweeted last week that he and other colleagues had "discovered misleading Google ads being run on important election integrity search terms by the Washington Times." First, we believe that these headlines are not factually supported by the underlying articles and should be disallowed under Google's clickbait policies. Second, an exemption for media companies means these ads are not visible in Google's political ad archive. pic.twitter.com/rxXilR2gqI — Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) September 10, 2020 "First, we believe that these headlines are not factually supported by the underlying articles and should be disallowed under Google's clickbait policies. Second, an exemption for media companies means these ads are not visible in Google's political ad archive," Stamos said. Google Political advertisers — and likely, bad actors — aren't backing down on their use of Google to target Americans ahead of the November elections. President Donald Trump's campaign secured prime ad space on YouTube's homepage in the days before the election for an estimated $1 million per day, despite a history of running ads that violate Google's policies. Google is taking some steps when it comes to products like search results, announcing last week that it can more quickly detect misinformation during breaking news events and will crack down on potentially misleading autocomplete suggestions about voting information and candidates. Still, researchers remain concerned and largely in the dark about how moneyed interests could be paying Google to try to influence its users' political attitudes and behaviors. "Facebook draws a lot of fire for monetizing user data or serving manipulative political communications, but Google often engages in the same practices. In fact, Google has even more data about its users and allows a bigger group of political advertisers to leverage that data. Many users don't realize that they're using Google when they visit a website that serves ads through DoubleClick or contains embedded YouTube videos," Clauw said. "All of those things make Google Ads, the Google Ad space a real black box, so I couldn't even tell you what's harmful there," Edelson said.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why thoroughbred horse semen is the world's most expensive liquid
Facebook's decision to halt new political ads will have big implications for last-minute campaigns but little impact on its ad business
Summary List Placement After facing scrutiny about its handling of misinformation and political ads during the...Summary List Placement After facing scrutiny about its handling of misinformation and political ads during the 2016 presidential election, Facebook said it would not take any new political ads in the week leading up to this year's presidential contest in November. Facebook also announced steps to promote legitimate reporting on the election and combat posts that discourage people from voting. Joe Biden and President Trump have been spending big on Facebook for more than a year. But small and midsize businesses make up the bulk of Facebook's $70 billion advertising business, so the ban on new advertising campaigns will have little effect on Facebook's revenue. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said political ads would make less than 0.5% of Facebook's 2020 revenue. Other digital media platforms including Twitter, Pinterest and Adobe have banned political ads. "There's more money than ever that would have been spent on it," said Rob Shepardson, a political consultant who helped cofound the ad agency SS+K and worked on both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. "But any way you slice it, it's not a significant hit for Facebook." Shepardson said Facebook's new ban could throw a wrench in political campaigns, though, with 20% to 25% of political ad budgets spent in the week before an election encouraging people to vote. That money is likely to go to streaming TV platforms, programmatic advertising, and audio advertising, said Ivanka Farrell, senior director of media operations at political ad agency Bully Pulpit. "There are plenty of elections where people make up their mind the last week," Shepardson said. "'Get out the vote' is a massive operation of any sophisticated campaign." Facebook's rule comes with catches, though Patrick Savoia, director of global media at ad agency Blue State, pointed out that the impact of Facebook's decision could be small this year because campaigns are emphasizing ads promoting mail-in voting that starts weeks before the election. He said that the biggest impact will be on local races where last-minute spending is heavier. He said it's also unclear if Facebook's new policy applies to cause-based advertising, which has in the past been treated the same as political and nonprofit campaigns. While politicians cannot run new campaigns in the week before to the election, they can still run campaigns in the week before the election if they start them eight or more days beforehand. They can also increase their spending on campaigns that are already running. Shepardson said that in his interpretation of the policy, Facebook's effort could end up stripping out some of the targeting and custom messaging that politicians traditionally use in last-minute campaigns. Savoia said that Facebook's new policy also doesn't address the platform's problems with its algorithm that can surface misinformation and hate content. "I think it is a lot of lip service," he said.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: A cleaning expert reveals her 3-step method for cleaning your entire home quickly