By Jonathan Nemetz
In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was the first in American history to spend over $100 million on online advertising. Most of the advertising was directed at Facebook, a site just four years old at the time. Yet despite its relative infancy when compared to television and print advertising, Facebook was extremely effective in increasing support for the Illinois senator, especially among a younger demographic. Partially due to this embracing of digital advertising, 70% of voters under 25 voted for Obama: the highest percentage on record. In 2012, the Obama campaign added networking to their toolbox, getting 600,000 users of the “Obama 2012” Facebook application to reach out to approximately 5 million other Facebook users. Of that 5 million, a million took action in favor of the campaign, such as registering to vote.
This looks like a winning strategy that has worked for Democrats in the past, and should continue to work. Yet, as the Trump campaign showed in 2016, this is not a strategy that the Democrats have a timeless monopoly on. The real estate mogul was able to raise $250 million through Facebook during the 2016 election cycle, making up the bulk of his online fundraising. In addition, new updates and functions on the site allowed the Republican nominee to organize events, reach new audiences, fundraise, push supporters to register to vote, and much more. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton mainly used the massive forum to organize people who already supported her campaign, and failed to use it as a megaphone. So it seems that increasing usage of Facebook will be vital for a Democratic victory in 2020, and prevent the same conservative domination of the site that was so dangerous in 2016.
Since the Obama and Clinton campaigns, however, Facebook and its relationship to the public have dramatically changed, and rarely for the better. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook’s negligence led to the leaking of 87 million Facebook users’ data, raised serious concerns about the trustworthiness of the company. In that vein, awareness of Facebook’s data selling and data mining made people feel less private on the website. Then, with the 2016 election, the algorithms of the social media website became particularly susceptible to an increase in fake news, which politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum both denounced and exploited.
Facebook’s reputation not only has changed, but so have its demographics. While the company has expanded overseas to reach 2.4 billion users, domestic engagement with the website has been shifting to an older audience, who are already likely to vote. Younger potential voters are moving away from the older Facebook, and towards connecting on sites such as Instagram and communicating on apps such as WhatsApp.
Yet, even if Facebook is still an effective tool, Democrats face a larger problem with the company, namely that of politics versus policy. Progressives from William Taft to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt have always made big stands against the size and influence of corporations, and today’s progressives are no different. Major candidates for the Democratic nomination in 2020, such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris, have already said they would attempt to break up Facebook were they elected. Even candidates as moderate as Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg have said they would seriously look into it as president.
Yet despite their denouncements of the website, they still use very robust Facebook accounts to reach voters. Elizabeth Warren even got 150,000 clicks for her video on why Facebook needs to be broken up, on the very site she was advocating to dismantle. This raises the question of whether it’s hypocritical for candidates to benefit from a system that they deem corrupt and dangerous for democracy as a whole. While it may not seem like having a Facebook account to organize supporters would help the site in any substantial way, it significantly increases the power and influence of a site that many politicians wish to see less of in American life.
Perhaps the most prominent way that candidates have accidentally aided Facebook is through the use of advertisements. Despite being two of the earliest advocates to break up Facebook, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris respectively, were the two top Democratic advertisers on Facebook, at the beginning of the 2019 summer. While their combined $2.5 million isn’t even half of the advertising revenue that the Trump campaign has put into Facebook’s pockets since January of 2019, it still directly contributes to the company’s resources and ability to dominate the market even further.
In addition, not only does Facebook profit directly from the advertising spending of these campaigns, but a campaign’s very use of the platform benefits it through exposure to other people’s advertisements. By updating and sending notifications to the 11.1 million people who follow openly anti-Facebook candidates, they are directly contributing to traffic on a site they distrust. Once people have been drawn in by a notification from their campaign, they may stay and continue to view Facebook advertisements, generating the site revenue. In addition, by bringing supporters back to the website, more people are exposed to the fake news and misleading headlines that have permeated much of Facebook since the 2016 election cycle.
Still, that engagement has another much more nefarious consequence, which is that of data collection, something Facebook handles mostly through a subsidiary known as ‘Facebook Pixel’. Pixel is billed to businesses and organizations as a tool that allows website owners to get a better sense of the demographics of visitors to their site. In turn, Pixel claims, they will be able to better optimize their website for their audience.
However, the information that Pixel collects isn’t directly shared with the website utilizing the service. Rather it is sent to Facebook servers, who use that demographic information to create and target ads based off of who a website wants to target. However, Facebook then uses that information to also identify and link visitors of a site to a Facebook account, and increase the data they have on hand about that person to sell. While this could be considered morally dubious in its own right, when political campaigns get involved, it gets even messier. Facebook Pixel tracks everything that a user does on a campaign site, including whether or not they donated, and even how much they donated to a campaign. This means that ads and online campaign messages shift to favor the demographics that are spending the most in donations, rather than those who are not in an ability to do so. This diminishes the exposure that politically inactive and poorer citizens get to current candidates and issues, as they are less valuable as donors to campaigns.
In 2008 Barack Obama was certainly aided in his election by a savvy usage of Facebook, but what excited people more was his character: his drive to stand up for what he believed in, pride in his convictions, and an ability to challenge the status quo. Yet in refusing to budge from the tactics of his campaign, democrats have been forgetting its ideals. Despite multiple start ups trying their hand at challenging Facebook, the Social Media giant still dominates the industry, and influences how Americans get political information. But continuing to use the website portrays real activists as opportunists––double-speaking hypocrites that wish to have their cake and eat it too. If Democrats want to continue to be the party of challenging big business, strengthening privacy, and pushing ahead, it’s time for politicians to unfriend Facebook.