President Donald Trump and Joe Biden share a disdain for Facebook Inc. and say the speech it publicizes should be regulated. But neither one is ready to quit the troubled platform, especially when their most direct route to voters -- face-to-face campaigning -- has been cut off.
Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, proved a vital tool in the last presidential election. But the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more crucial for the 2020 cycle, as more people are at home and social distancing measures have nearly ended meeting voters in person.
Since last April, when Biden joined the race, the Democratic nominee has spent $26.6 million advertising on Facebook, according to the platform’s self-reported ad-spending data, more than 75% of his digital advertising spending. In the same period, Trump spent $36.9 million on the platform out of a total of $69.9 million that his campaign and supporting committees have spent on digital ads.
That makes it tricky for Trump or Biden to join a growing boycott by major companies like Unilever NV, Coca-Cola Co. and Starbucks Corp., which have decided they don’t want their brands associated with the hate speech that infiltrates their customers’ feeds.
It’s clearly a love-hate relationship. Trump and Republicans argue that social media companies, including Facebook, stifle free speech and are biased against conservatives. Biden and Democrats contend that the companies don’t do enough to police hate speech and that they are a conduit for misinformation that could alter elections.
”Campaigns think of Facebook the same as airlines,” said Keegan Goudiss, managing partner at Revolution Messaging, who served as director of digital advertising on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “They hate flying and how airlines treat customers, but they don’t have a choice.”
Earlier this month, Biden’s campaign launched a public effort to enlist its supporters in calling on Facebook and Chairman Mark Zuckerberg to strengthen the company’s rules on political speech by posting an open letter on Facebook. Bill Russo, a campaign spokesperson, said 100,000 supporters had signed on.
“We share the concerns of companies who are speaking up about Facebook’s inaction around making meaningful changes that protects our democracy,” Russo said Tuesday. “But with less than five months until Election Day, we cannot afford to cede these platforms to Donald Trump and his lies. Our campaign will be present every day to get our message in front of every voter to ensure Trump doesn’t get another four years.”
On Tuesday, the Biden campaign sent a letter to Facebook demanding that the social media giant explain its response to recent posts by Trump that appeared to violate its updated policies on addressing disinformation and curbing “hateful content.” The letter from campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon, pointed specifically to prior posts that contained false statements about mail-in voting and those that suggested calling in the military to suppress demonstrations in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd.
Trump has alternately praised and derided social media companies. In May, he signed an executive order aimed at preventing online censorship days after Twitter added a fact-checking button to one of his tweets that alleged mail-in voting leads to rampant fraud.
Though it was Twitter that drew his ire, Facebook received blowback.
“The choices that Twitter makes when it chooses to suppress, edit, blacklist, shadow, ban are editorial decisions, pure and simple. They’re editorial decisions,” Trump said May 28 as he signed the executive order. “In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform, and they become an editor with a viewpoint. And I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook and perhaps others.”
But that same day Trump tweeted Zuckerberg’s comments from a Fox interview, where the CEO said that he believes “strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.”
Facebook had long resisted labeling problematic posts, but Zuckerberg reversed course last week after employee pushback and as the advertising boycott was starting, announcing the company would put warning labels on posts that break its rules but are deemed too newsworthy to remove.
But Facebook remains the lifeblood of Trump’s campaign, particularly as the coronavirus pandemic has stifled his ability to hold his signature campaign rallies. He has about 30 million followers, compared to Biden’s 2 million.
“It’s indisputable that President Trump’s Facebook operation is light-years ahead of candidate Biden’s. In fact, Facebook is the leading platform for our daily Team Trump Online broadcasts that average 2.4 million total views per broadcast,” Ken Farnaso, a Trump campaign spokesman said Monday.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Trump’s re-election effort has spent $325,000 on Facebook ads that promote the social media pages of campaign manager Brad Parscale. The ads include campaign videos, online surveys and requests for people to donate.
Trump’s campaign has also encouraged voters to circumvent traditional social media platforms and to directly use an app that it created for the election. The president’s supporters, including White House officials and campaign aides, have also increasingly promoted Parler, a fledgling social media app.
But Parler doesn’t have Facebook’s reach. Its monopoly has given campaigns no other options. Camonghne Felix, senior vice president for strategic communications at Blue State Digital, says her firm is advising its nonpolitical clients to join the boycott, but not campaigns.
“Ethically we would love for them to do that but it’s a matter of cutting off their noses to spite their face,” she said.
Biden is trying to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Facebook was flooded with inaccurate information about Hillary Clinton, and some of that information was spread by fake accounts coordinated by Russian groups to sow mistrust among the electorate. Democrats believe that effort helped Trump win.
For months, the Biden campaign has criticized Facebook’s policies saying it allowed the spread of unverified information that undermines the integrity of elections.
The Biden campaign wants Facebook to prioritize trustworthy sources of information, quickly remove viral misinformation, prevent political candidates from spreading inaccurate information and universally enforce rules about voter suppression, explicitly calling out Trump.
Chris Nolan, founder of Spot On, a bipartisan digital-ad-buying platform, said campaigns treat each digital platform as a battleground where they have to beat their opponents, locking them into an arms race in which the winning candidate is the one that spends the most. But the digital world is diverse and there are several other viable options to buy online advertising, Nolan said, including local news sites or geo-targeted mobile advertising.
“Facebook wins because Facebook has made itself easy to use, and campaigns want to see that ease-of-use as the equivalent to buying cable ads: one buy, one bill,” Nolan said. “Campaigns need to become more sophisticated - as brands are - about digital. It’s not one stop anymore.”
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