The 2016 Presidential Election was undoubtedly the worst thing that’s ever happened to Facebook, and it’s doing everything it can to signal that it wants to avoid a repeat of that nightmare. On Thursday, it told reporters that it will stop dispatching employees to work directly with political campaigns.
Facebook and other major digital advertising platforms like Twitter and Google often offer important clients extra help when it comes to maximizing advertising spending, targeting, and messaging. When that client is selling laundry detergent, few objections are raised. But when the client is running for office, the situation looks a lot worse. When the client is Donald Trump and his digital director says Facebook’s tools and support were critical to his victory, well, that’s probably going to piss off a majority of Americans.
According to Reuters, Facebook will at least be backing off of the bad optics of sending staff members to a campaign’s headquarters to give them one-on-one help. From the report:
Facebook said it could offer assistance to more candidates globally by focusing on offering support through an online portal instead of in person. It said that political organizations still would be able to contact employees to receive basic training on using Facebook or for assistance on getting ads approved.
Bloomberg was the first to report the new direction Facebook is taking on Thursday evening. That report claimed that the social network is still leaving itself some wiggle room to work with campaigns, saying it would “still offer technical support and basic training to candidate campaigns and political advocacy organizations, but it won’t visit campaign headquarters with as much frequency or provide as much strategic support as it did for Trump ahead of the 2016 election.”
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and to clarify whether it will take a hard line on sending free personal support to campaigns, but we did not receive an immediate reply.
Earlier this year, Brad Parscale, Trump’s former digital director and current campaign manager for the 2020 election, told 60 Minutes that Trump used all of the platforms available for advertising, but “Facebook was the 500-pound gorilla” that consumed 80 percent of the budget. He also said that Facebook staff worked closely with the campaign staff, “multiple days a week, three, four days a week, two days a week, five days a week.”
Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, declined Facebook’s offer of assistance, according to the company. In April, Bloomberg obtained an internal memo from Facebook that outlined in detail how the two campaigns used their social media spending differently. The author of the memo wrote that between June and November of 2016, the company took in $44 million in revenue from the Trump campaign and $28 million for Clinton. According to Bloomberg, the memo points out one major difference in how the campaigns used their money: “84 percent of Trump’s budget asked people on Facebook to take an action, like donating, compared with 56 percent of Clinton’s.”
Ahead of the 2018 midterms, Facebook has been on a PR push to highlight the laughable “war room” it has set up to focus on preventing any nefarious election meddling from foreign adversaries. It’s also taking every opportunity to repeat the various changes it’s been making to its platform in the last two years and announcing benign do-gooder efforts like a voter registration drive. But don’t expect it to stop working with political campaigns altogether.
Researchers for Magna Global published a study on Thursday that forecasts online advertising will make up half of all U.S. ad sales for the first time this year. After crushing print and radio advertising, digital networks have to compete with television next. Election years bring a nice boost to TV ad sales and digital companies have to compete with each other as well.
Last year, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and University of Utah released a first-of-its-kind study that concluded Facebook, Twitter, and Google “go beyond promoting their services and facilitating digital advertising buys, actively shaping campaign communication through their close collaboration with political staffers.” The researchers found that “technology firms are motivated to work in the political space for marketing, advertising revenue, and relationship-building in the service of lobbying efforts.”
If Facebook is being deliberately opaque about what its new policy on working with campaigns actually entails, it certainly has plenty of reason to do so.