Less than a week after Joe Biden clinched a win in the 2020 presidential election, it looked like Facebook's post-election plan was going to backfire.
In November, the company announced it would extend the political advertising ban for at least another month, and possibly longer, in an attempt to quell confusion over an election that President Donald Trump lost but has not yet conceded. Similarly, Google told advertisers that the Wall Street Journal said it was unlikely that the political advertising ban would be lifted in November or December. Then, last week, Google lifted the ban on political advertising.
On Tuesday, Facebook announced that the company had also changed course and announced that it would lift the 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 said it did not have the short-term technical ability to exempt from its national political advertising ban. Overall control of the company over political ads remains, according to a blog post published by the company.
"(W) We have developed a process that advertisers can use to run ads to reach voters in Georgia via the runoff in Georgia," the post said, adding that it would focus on providing advertisers with " direct participation "in the elections in Georgia.
Since the 2016 election, Facebook has tried to avoid intense and persistent criticism of its policy on political ads. Now that the final presidential election season is going to be a few months longer due to Georgia’s double runoff election that will rule over control of the Senate, some have claimed the extension of the political advertising ban is an electoral repression.
The frustration with Facebook's handling of the elections goes far beyond political advertising policy. Democrats and others have condemned the social media platform to allow for viral misinformation. The Biden campaign in particular has criticized Facebook's approach of often applying floury labels to content rather than removing posts that advance 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 are wrongly censoring right-wing voices. (There is usually no evidence for these complaints.)
The week after the election, Facebook appeared to be responding to the litany of criticism in a blog post. The company wrote that despite the fact that 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 are also concerned that they can continue to advertise on Facebook – a way to get their messages more direct on the site. So when the presidential election shows up in our rear-view mirror and the Georgia runoff approaches, the problem that Facebook is bad for democracy – one that Facebook itself admitted – won't go away.
The runoff election in Georgia pissed off both parties on Facebook again
In Georgia, Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock will challenge Republican incumbents Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler in separate races in January.
Since Facebook and Google did not run political ads on their platforms, which is an extension of previous guidelines, candidates were unable to use the two highly valued digital platforms to advertise or provide information to voters in Georgia's somewhat unusual runoff process. This of course happens in the middle of a pandemic when personal campaigning activities are limited.
While Google didn't reveal much about its plan to extend the political advertising ban, Rob Leathern, Facebook's director of product management, shared some details about his company's decision on Twitter, stating that the company's systems didn't allow for an exception to enable the political commercial break for individual advertisers.
We are unable to enable political advertisements by state or advertiser in the short term, and we are also committed to giving political advertisers equal access to our tools and services. (4/4)
– Rob Leathern (@robleathern) 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 the Facebook system, the company said in a blog post on Tuesday. Facebook said its decision was influenced by experts who stressed Facebook's importance for political campaigning. The company also stressed that it is continuing its efforts to ensure electoral integrity – including helping voters register for the runoff before the registration deadline last week – and providing voters with accurate information about the election.
Neither Facebook nor Google responded to previous requests for comments.
The extension of the advertising ban had put Georgia Senate candidates into question how Facebook – and, to a lesser extent, Google – would continue to affect the election. The Georgia Democratic Senate's 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 disinformation rampant on their platforms." Terrence Clark, a spokesperson for the Warnock campaign, said the platforms are repressing voters by "preventing campaigns from sharing vital information about how to vote, register for a postal vote, and how to ensure theirs Counting votes ".
Meanwhile, Republicans had accused the social network of anti-conservative bias, which has become the party's main talking point for tech companies. In a tweet on Thursday, Loeffler accused companies of "silencing conservatives" and "suppressing free speech". Perdue's campaign spokesman told Recode in November that the bans were "a violation of basic first adjustment rights."
Republicans and Democrats have duel complaints on Facebook
While their particular grievances may vary, politicians from both parties have increasingly expressed their frustrations on Facebook since the 2016 election. It got particularly hot in the weeks leading up to November 3rd.
For example, Conservatives raged after the platform restricted distribution of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden. The outrage ultimately spurred a Senate hearing in which Republicans made their claim that Facebook, among other social media companies, rigged the elections. Members of both parties were also upset when Facebook accidentally blocked a series of campaign ads from appearing days before the election.
The frustration with Facebook's ad policies reflects the general frustration on both sides of their organic content. Democrats don't seem angry about rampant misinformation on the platform until the days after the election. Bill Russo, a Biden spokesman, accused the company of "tearing apart the fabric of our democracy" in a series of November tweets in which Facebook's failure to contain content fueled Trump's false allegations of widespread electoral fraud and claims to victory , was criticized.
We knew this was going to happen. We've been asking 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 Georgia Republican Senate candidates, had continued to argue that Facebook was censoring them.
Other Republican frustrations with 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 state secretaries even wrote to the company and turned against the Voter Information Center, an online platform that helps people register to vote, discouraging efforts, arguing it was redundant.
Given the events in Georgia, it seems clear that neither side will abandon their criticism of Facebook. At the same time, this latest installment is a reminder that companies like Facebook and Google have by no means perfected their US election guidelines 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 move to extend the political display ban may have had a technical explanation. But for the candidates in Georgia, this had a real impact on their campaign plans. Even if Facebook's political ad is now ditched, candidates have lost more than a month of digital advertising and missed the critical window for new voter registration in the state.
After all, Facebook's policies in the run-up to a state's runoff elections could have an impact on which party controls the Senate – and whether Biden can enforce a directory of democratic politics without hurdles from Republicans. It's a reminder that the company's influence on politics only seems to grow.
Update, December 15th: This article has been updated to take into account that Facebook and Google have changed their policy on political ads.
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All open sourced content is editorially independent and is produced by our journalists.
Are you helping keep Vox free for everyone?
Understanding has enormous power. Vox answers your most important questions and gives you clear information to help you understand an increasingly chaotic world. A financial contribution to Vox will help us continue to provide free explanatory journalism to the millions who rely on us. Please consider contributing to Vox today, starting at $ 3.