Facebook Ad-vantage: A Lack of Regulation May Lead to Public Ignorance and Political Imbalance in the 2020 Presidential Election

October 25, 2019

            With the 2020 Presidential election fast approaching, candidates are becoming increasingly creative with their campaigns. While traditional forms of campaigning such as advertisements on television and radio are still being used, more and more candidates are turning to social media to reach the public. Between May 2018 and July 2019, for example, President Trump spent $16.5M on Facebook ads alone. President Trump is spending vastly more on Facebook and Google advertisements than any Democrat challenging him in the upcoming 2020 election.

            The use of Facebook in political campaigns is concerning for a few reasons. First, Facebook is not subject to the same rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that govern commercial broadcasters (such as television and radio stations). Because Facebook is not regulated by the FCC, Facebook is not required to give reasonable access to candidates from differing political parties. Second, Facebook can change company policies related to the content political ads display whenever they choose.

            The FCC requires commercial broadcast stations to provide reasonable access to candidates who are running for president. This means that commercial television and radio stations must allow federal candidates to purchase reasonable amounts of broadcast time throughout their campaigns, during any time of day. Political candidates from every political party, therefore, are on the same footing when it comes to advertising because they are all given the same opportunities. Although 66% of Americans are using Facebook, it is not considered a commercial broadcaster, so it does not have to give political candidates of each party equal opportunity to advertise for their campaigns.

            This creates an issue, because the person in charge of Facebook, currently Mark Zuckerberg, could potentially skew Facebook advertisements in a way that benefits the political party he supports. Mr. Zuckerberg could do this by playing more ads for a certain political party and limiting advertisement access to adverse political parties. Mr. Zuckerberg is currently registered to vote in California but does not identify himself as being affiliated with the Republican, Democrat or any other party. Mr. Zuckerberg and his company’s political action committee have given tens of thousands of dollars to political candidates of both parties. In 2016, 56% of Facebook’s contributions supporting federal candidates went to Republicans, and 44% went to Democrats. In 2018, Facebook spent $278,000 supporting candidates for federal office, mostly on Republicans. Therefore, although it is difficult to determine what side of the political spectrum Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook fall, it is clear that this could influence the content the public is viewing from presidential candidates in the 2020 election.

            Facebook is also able to change its policies on the content it allows on Facebook, and thus what political ads viewers see. Facebook’s general policy for advertisements prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers. Political ads, however, are exempt. This policy has sparked sharp backlash from Democrats who complain that it will give President Trump free rein to spread misinformation about competing candidates. President Trump recently ran an ad on Facebook claiming that Biden, “promised Ukraine $1 billion if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company”. After this ad ran, campaign staff for Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, asked Facebook to remove the ad, to which Facebook refused, stating the ad didn’t violate any of their policies.

            One reason that Facebook may be unwilling to remove political ads that may contain false information, is fear of infringing on freedom of speech. Facebook is a melting pot of ideas, and it can become a slippery slope if certain political ads are prohibited because their content is contested by opposing candidates. Further, the FCC prohibits broadcasters from censoring statements of political candidates, and stations could lose their government broadcast license if they do this. Although Facebook is not subject to FCC regulations at the present, they are a huge platform for political campaigns, and it is possible that the government could apply similar regulations to them in the future regarding censorship.           

             Until Facebook is regulated by the FCC, or a similar agency, they have the ability to change their current advertisement policy. Political pressure could lead them to removing controversial ads put on by political candidates, giving certain candidates advantages in their campaigns. With 66% of Americans using Facebook, and 45% getting at least some of their news from the site, Facebook may be a huge player in the upcoming election. By keeping their political ad exemption policy in place, candidates don’t have to worry about infringement on free speech, however the public may be subject to misinformation. How often do Facebook users really fact-check a post before sharing it with everyone on their feed? This melting pot of ideas could quickly turn into a melting pot of erroneous political propaganda.

Shayshari Potter

October 25, 2019