The Georgia Senate runoff elections were hampered by a Facebook advertising ban. Now the company is backing down.
Less than a week after Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election, it looked like Facebook’s post-election plan was backfire.
In November, the company announced it would extend its ban on political advertising for at least another month, and possibly longer, in an attempt to quell confusion over an election that President Donald Trump has lost but still not conceded. According to the Wall Street Journal, Google also told advertisers that it was unlikely to lift its political advertising ban in November or December. Then, last week, Google lifted its ban on political advertising.
Facebook also announced on Tuesday that it had changed course and announced that it would lift its political advertising ban on the campaigns in Georgia. The announcement came after criticism from both Republican and Democratic Senate candidates in the running and after the company declared that it did not have the technical capabilities to make exceptions to its national political advertising ban in the short term. According to a blog post published by the company, the company’s overall influence over political ads remains.
“[W]We have developed a process that allows advertisers to run ads to reach voters in Georgia via the runoff in Georgia, “the post said, adding that they are focusing on engaging advertisers with” direct turnout ” will focus on the elections in Georgia.
Since the 2016 elections, Facebook has tried to avoid intense and persistent criticism of its policy on political ads. Now that the final season of the presidential election has been extended by a few months due to Georgia’s double runoff election that will rule over Senate control, some have claimed the political advertising ban extension was an electoral repression.
The frustration with Facebook’s handling of the election extends far beyond its political advertising policy. Democrats and others have condemned the social media platform for enabling viral misinformation. The Biden campaign in particular has criticized Facebook’s approach, which is often about labeling content with lousy labels instead of removing posts that spread conspiracy theories about electoral fraud and cast doubt on the election. At the same time, Republicans complain that Facebook is systematically biased against conservatives and that tech companies wrongly censor right-wing voices. (There is usually no evidence for these complaints.)
In the week following the election, Facebook appeared to be responding to the litany of criticism in a blog post. The company wrote that while conservatives often dominate the lists of most engaged content on its platform, most of what people see on Facebook is not bipartisan political content.
Both sides are upset with how the platform handles organic content, but they’re also concerned about maintaining their ability to advertise on Facebook – a way to get their messages across more directly on the website. As the presidential election pops up in our rearview mirror and the Georgia runoff draws nearer, the problem that Facebook is bad for democracy – one that Facebook itself has admitted – is not going away.
The runoff election in Georgia makes both parties angry on Facebook – again
In Georgia, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will compete in separate races against Republican incumbents Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in January.
Since Facebook and Google did not place political ads on their platforms, which is an extension of the previous guidelines, the candidates could not use the two highly valued digital platforms to reach voters with advertising or to provide them with information on Georgia’s somewhat unusual runoff process. This, of course, happens amid a pandemic when personal campaigning activities are limited.
While Google didn’t reveal much about its plan to extend the political advertising ban, Facebook’s director of product management, Rob Leathern, shared some details of his company’s decision on Twitter, stating that the company’s systems have no way of allowing an exemption political commercial break for individual advertisers.
We do not have the technical means to provide short-term political advertisements by state or advertiser, and we are also committed to providing political advertisers with equal access to our tools and services. (4/4)
– Rob Leathern (@roleathern) November 11, 2020
Critics quickly pointed out that Facebook, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, had years and a seemingly endless supply of resources to develop this feature.
Now Facebook seems to have figured out how such an exception works. Starting Wednesday, pre-approved advertisers working on the Georgia race will be able to run campaigns through Facebook’s system, the company said in its blog post on Tuesday. Facebook said its decision was influenced by experts who stressed Facebook’s importance in political campaigning. The company also said it is continuing its electoral integrity efforts – including helping voters sign up before last week’s deadline for registration for the runoff election – and advising voters of accurate information about the election.
Neither Facebook nor Google responded to previous requests for comments.
The extension of the advertising ban had led Georgia Senate candidates to wonder how Facebook – and, to a lesser extent, Google – would continue to affect the election. The Georgia Democratic Senate campaigns have accused Facebook of allowing its algorithms to promote misinformation and bipartisan right-wing accounts.
Miryam Lipper, communications director for the Ossoff campaign, told Recode in a November statement that companies are “putting their fingers on the scales for Republican millionaire candidates” and “ignoring the rampant disinformation on their platforms.” Terrence Clark, a spokesman for the Warnock campaign, said that by “preventing campaigns from sharing vital information about how to register to vote, register for a postal vote, and ensure how their votes are counted,” said the platforms “prevent campaigns from sharing vital information.” “, involved in voter suppression.
Meanwhile, Republicans had accused the social network of anti-conservative bias, which has become the party’s main talking point about tech companies. In a tweet on Thursday, Loeffler accused the company of “silencing conservatives” and “suppressing free speech.” Perdue’s campaign spokesman told Recode in November that the bans were “a violation of the fundamental rights of the First Amendment”.
Republicans and Democrats have duel complaints on Facebook
While their specific grievances may vary, politicians from both parties have spoken increasingly louder about their frustration with Facebook since the 2016 elections. It got particularly hot in the weeks leading up to November 3rd.
For example, Conservatives were furious after the platform restricted distribution of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden. The outrage eventually led to a Senate hearing where Republicans made their claim that Facebook, along with other social media companies, was rigging the election. Members of both parties were also upset when Facebook accidentally blocked a series of campaign ads days before the election.
The frustration with Facebook’s advertising policies mirrors the general frustration on both sides with their handling of organic content. The Democrats only seem even more upset in the days after the election about the rampant misinformation on the platform. Bill Russo, a spokesman for Biden, accused the company of “shredding the fabric of our democracy” in a series of November tweets criticizing Facebook’s failure to crack down on content, Trump’s false allegations of widespread election fraud and the Promoted claims to victory.
We knew this was going to happen. We’ve been pleading with Facebook for over a year to take these issues seriously. They have not.
Our democracy is at stake. We need answers.
– Bill Russo (@BillR) November 10, 2020
At the same time, conservatives, including the Georgia Republican Senate candidates, continued to argue that Facebook is censoring them.
Other Republican frustrations over Facebook concern voter registration efforts. Trump’s digital director once argued, with no evidence, that Facebook’s attempt to register voters was a ploy to register more Biden voters than Trump voters. Some Republican foreign ministers even wrote to the company in writing, protesting its Voter Information Center, an online platform designed to help people register to vote, arguing that it was redundant.
After what happens to Georgia, it seems clear that neither side is going to let up in their criticism of Facebook. At the same time, this latest episode is a reminder that companies like Facebook and Google have by no means perfected their policies towards the US elections and that political content, from misinformation to candidate advertising to non-partisan Facebook pages, does not exist in a vacuum.
In this most recent case, the extension of the political advertising ban may have had a technical explanation. But for the candidates in Georgia it had a real impact on their campaign plans. Despite the lifting of Facebook’s political ban on advertising, candidates lost more than a month of digital advertising and missed the critical window of opportunity for new voters to register in the state.
After all, Facebook’s policies in the run-up to a state’s runoff election could affect which party controls the Senate – and whether Biden can enforce a directory of democratic politics without hurdles from Republicans. It is a reminder that the company’s influence on politics only seems to increase.
Update, December 15th: This article has been updated to reflect that Facebook and Google have changed their political advertising guidelines.
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