Political ad spend across the digital landscape is expected to reach more than $1 billion during the 2019/2020 election season – the highest it has ever been, and the first time it will cross the billion-dollar mark. According to a February report from eMarketer, U.S. political advertisers will invest a combined $1.34 billion in digital ads, representing an astounding 203% increase over the 2015/2016 election season that brought in $440 million.
The majority of political ad spend on digital platforms will go to Facebook and Google. Facebook will take the lion’s share, owning more than half (59.4%) of the $1.34 billion eMarketer expects political advertisers to spend this election season. Google will get less than a fifth of the cut (18.2%), with most of its political ad revenue coming from YouTube, reports eMarketer.
Whether or not these numbers will be impacted by coronavirus is yet to be determined – but an argument could be made that even more money will be pumped into social media campaigns as large-scale events and political rallies are canceled. Unfortunately, social media platforms do not make it easy for social media ad managers. The rules keep changing across platforms, with some social networks banning political ads altogether while others limit ad targeting capabilities.
Twitter rebukes Facebook, bans all political ads
It was only five months ago Twitter banned all political ads – a policy change Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced minutes before Facebook released its earnings report for the third quarter of 2019. While Dorsey did not explicitly name Facebook or its CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he tweeted Twitter’s policy change, it was an obvious response to Facebook’s stance that it would not fact-check ads from political candidates.
We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought, tweeted Dorsey,
This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.
Dorsey’s reference to free speech was a pointed response to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments two weeks prior during a speech at Georgetown University, where he explained why Facebook would not fact-check political ads.
I believe that when it’s not absolutely clear what to do, we should err on the side of greater expression, told Zuckerberg about his company’s political ad policy.
Political ad-free zones: Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and TikTok
Twitter isn’t the only social platform to ban ads. LinkedIn stopped allowing political advertising in June, 2018 and Pinterest followed suit the same year. TikTok announced last October it would ban all political ads on its site.
Reddit only allows political ads for federal elections, and Snapchat allows political ads, but fact-checks and reviews the ads on a case-by-case basis.
Because we reach so many young people and first-time voters we want them to be able to engage with the political conversation, but we don’t allow things like misinformation to appear in that advertising, said Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel in an interview with CNBC in November 2019.
Facebook draws criticism from watchdog groups
As expected, Facebook’s refusal to fact-check political ads drew sharp criticism from watchdog groups who have been closely monitoring the company’s political ad policies since bad actors plagued the platform during the 2016 election. In an October, 2019 op-ed, Yosef Getachew, the media and democracy program director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause, said Facebook’s hands-off policy toward political ads posed a danger to our democracy.
Giving politicians free rein to spread lies using political ads shows a disregard for the role Facebook and other social media platforms play in disseminating information to voters, wrote Getachew.
Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub took to Twitter to voice her concerns over Facebook’s refusal to fact check ads.
Facebook’s weak plan suggests the company has no idea how much it is hurting democracy. No one is a bigger believer in transparency than I. But here, proposing ‘transparency’ solutions is window-dressing when Facebook needs to be putting out the housefire it has lit.
Weintraub argued in an October 2019 Washington Post op-ed that social platforms should not ban political ads, but stop allowing advertisers to use microtargeting capabilities.
Just because microtargeted ads can be a good way to sell deodorant does not make them a safe way to sell candidates. It is easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability because the public at large never sees the ad, wrote Weintraub.
Google heeds the call for more restrictive measures on political ads
Last November, Google announced it was changing its policies by limiting the ability to micro-target political ads across its ad platforms. As of January 6, Google’s ad systems limited audience targeting capabilities for election ads to age, gender, and general location (postal code level).
In January, Facebook rolled out expanded transparency measures for political ads on the platform, adding audience size data to the political ads archived in its Ad Library. With this tool, users can search and view all political ads and campaigns running across Facebook and Instagram. (Twitter also launched an Ad Archive in 2017, showing not only political ads but all ads that ran on the platform.) Facebook also said it would be launching a user control feature this summer that allows people to limit the number of political and social issue ads they see in their Facebook and Instagram feeds.
A quick cheat-sheet for ad policy rules by platform
To help you with the ins and outs of running digital political ad campaigns, we’ve put together the following table.
|Social Network||Allows Political Ads?||Political Ad Policy Highlights|
|Yes||Facebook requires advertiser running political or social issue ads to be authorized. The authorization process must be completed by the advertiser’s Page admin who must provide a U.S. state driver’s license, state ID or U.S. passport and a U.S.-based residential mailing address. All political and social issue ads must include a “Paid for by” disclaimer.|
|Yes||Same as Facebook|
|Snapchat||Yes||Snapchat’s political ad policies apply to all political ads including election ads, advocacy ads and issue ads. Ads must include a “Paid for by” message within the ad that identifies the personal or group that purchased the ad. Snap reviews all political ads on a case-by-case basis and says it reserves the right to reject ads on its discretion. “We also reserve the right to require substantiation of an advertiser’s factual claim,” states Snapchat.|
|Google (YouTube)||Yes||Google’s ad policies align with the local legal requirements by state and geographic areas. All U.S. advertisers are restricted to the following targeting filters: geographic location, age, gender and contextual targeting options. U.S. advertisers running election ad campaigns must be verified and the advertisement must include a disclosure showing who paid for the ad. (Google says the verification process will allow it to automatically include such disclosures.)|
|Yes (Only for federal elections)||Reddit only allows political ads for federal elections and does not accept ads related to U.S. ballot measures or ads for candidates in state or local elections. Ads are subject to pre-approval by Reddit and must include clear “Paid for by” disclosures within the ad copy.|
With so much money on the line this election season, it is essential for political advertisers to know which social networks accept political advertisements, and how the verification process works across the various platforms.
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