By Peter Aldhous, Feedburner
Political ads have no limits on their reach and power in U.S. campaigns. And you should never buy them. This election cycle we’ve seen an election cycle where the power of Facebook’s political ads was felt across multiple campaigns. And that’s nothing new. Facebook accounted for some of the biggest political advertising spend this cycle. However, you’ll recall that Facebook also found itself at the center of a national scandal in 2018, where political ads from Russia (both real and fake!) surfaced on its platform and amplified the height of an already heated national debate.
The question is, what happens to them after this election cycle? Facebook has said that it will require candidates and committees to pay a fee in order to run “issue” ads. This may seem like an adequate measure. However, this also should be a warning to any political or issue advertisers out there. And it’s especially important in a country where no real regulation of online political advertising exists.
Politicians and groups currently buying these ads can face a fine of up to $1 million, after Facebook has been informed of their violation of these new rules. However, the issue ad rules will apply to their Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and/or Instagram ads, not just their Twitter or YouTube ads. This means that it’s highly likely that these ads will remain unmonitored.
Additionally, few people know that there are no limitations on the number of times an issue ad may run. For example, if a group wants to make a group of issues and run them for one year, then the group can buy one story a year and then run it. That means these ads may appear dozens of times before anyone has the opportunity to ban or even consider banning them.
In an election season, these digital ads can reach every voter, and very likely the ones most likely to vote. Therefore, these ads should never run in the first place, unless you’re an interest group or you can pay for them or convince Facebook to let you. But that’s not happening right now, and don’t expect it to.
Facebook now have rules in place to purchase political and issue ads. They will be able to regulate their purchase or their placement, but the rules are voluntary and would likely fall under other criteria for ads. Furthermore, because no legislation exists for them, politicians and groups are able to evade these rules, with large fines still out of reach.
Now, the politics over regulation/no regulation disputes are well underway. Yet, these rules won’t stop any potential politicians from doing something – or anyone who wants to participate in the political system. There is very little regulation in place, especially for small-scale political advertising.
And as more candidates and groups expand their social media profiles, we’ll see even more attack ads on Facebook. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the ads that are running and realize their potential impact in the digital advertising ecosystem. With most political advertising low and mid-profile and spammy, we’re not seeing far-reaching effects that we expect in real-world campaigning. This election cycle we’ve seen Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) become more prominent in political and issue ads than they have in the past. Regardless of whether a political campaign puts their campaign on a Facebook or an Instagram ad or a fake Facebook ad, all are harmful to a community of users.
In response to regulations that could filter out some digital political advertising, Facebook has been pushing forward with new rules, specifically on Instagram, to be able to require that influencers on their platform to pay a fee to share their political ad. As an influencer on the platform, I understand why they might want to control how their ad is distributed, but I cannot believe they will be able to control the effects of their ads. In a digital advertising ecosystem, one word — “influencer” — can mean a tremendous amount.
There are over one million Facebook influencers, and unfortunately the amount of spending around those ads are quite small. The only way these types of influencers are able to earn their paychecks is by reaching millions of people with their posts, and by influencing every single person that reads them. Thus, when these ads are placed, with the message of the influencer more powerful than that of the political advertiser, I’m not sure they’ll be able to maintain the effect on people.
This article was first published on Feedburner.