During the 2016 election, Facebook touted its hyper-targeting abilities to help campaigns find the right voters. "Custom audiences" matched emails and voter registration lists to actual Facebook profiles. Information from third-party data brokers could identify potential supporters. 

"There was very little regulation involved about that," said Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO of social media marketing firm Socialbakers. "It was maybe a little bit of a naive approach." 

Four years later, we know these techniques did work on Facebook, but also invited outside parties to try and influence the last presidential election. The FBI has warned "foreign actors and cybercriminals" are still trying to do the same thing again this cycle. 

Since 2016, Facebook has put policies in place to prevent political ad abuse of its platform. Still, there are worries misinformation can spiral outside of its control. 

"What scares me less are the social networks," said Andrew Bleeker, president of political digital consultancy BPI. "What worries me more is the growth of active disinformation spreaders domestically. Given free speech, it is harder to address that." 

Policies in Place

An estimated $13.9 billion will be spent on advertising during the 2020 election cycle according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For comparison, $6.5 billion was spent during the 2016 election. 

The vast majority of that will still go to television. But political digital advertising is growing and may make up about a quarter of spending, according to analytics firm Kantar. On Facebook alone since the beginning of this year, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris have spent approximately $104.62 million on ads. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are slightly ahead of that at $108.7 million. 

"Four years is a long time in terms of marketing trends, and there are more digital-savvy strategists than four years ago," said media agency Magna Global managing director of global market intelligence Vincent Létang. Though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other social media platform executives have testified in the Senate multiple times over antitrust concerns and potential First Amendment rights violations, not much has legally changed since 2016 concerning what is allowed on the platforms. 

"We're basically asking private companies to write rules, but Congress desperately needs to provide guidance for this and has been woefully inept and stuck in a bipartisan world," said BPI's Bleeker, who was a lead digital marketing strategist for President Barack Obama's campaigns and has worked on Democratic presidential campaigns since then. It's something Zuckerberg himself has called for, especially in a March 2019 op-ed in The Washington Post, though some politicians, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), have accused the company of lobbying against regulation.

"The rules governing the Internet allowed a generation of entrepreneurs to build services that changed the world and created a lot of value in people's lives," Zuckerberg wrote. "It's time to update these rules to define clear responsibilities for people, companies, and governments going forward."

In absence of those rules, Facebook created its own policies, such as the political ad library, which lists every ad, the demographic data of who saw the ad, and the range of spending for each candidate. Ads now require disclaimers indicating who paid for the content. Anyone purchasing a political ad has to confirm they are in the United States and include proof of identification. Many of these changes fall in line with the proposed Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill calling for digital political ad reform. 

Facebook hired fact-checkers, including 80 partner organizations which cover more than 60 languages. Any perceived misinformation could be used to ban a political ad. Ads delegitimizing a method of voting, declaring unofficial victory, or saying an election is fraudulent face additional scrutiny. For example, both Biden and Trump ads were removed because they misrepresented the actual date of Election Day, The New York Times reported. Facebook also banned new political ads in the week leading up to the election and will stop running all social issues, electoral, and political ads after polls close on Tuesday. 

"For years, Facebook has called for more regulation — including around political advertising — and endorsed the Honest Ads Act in 2018," a Facebook spokesperson told Cheddar. "Even without additional rules, we created a system of transparency that allows people to learn more information about the political content they're seeing on Facebook and Instagram than on any other platform or medium anywhere." 

Freedom of Speech?

Non-ad posts created by candidates are in murkier waters. The company's current policies on misinformation cover posts erroneously identifying content as false, altered content, missing context, or partly false information. Posts with misleading information can be downgraded on Facebook's News Feed, affecting how often the item appears depending on the severity of the falsehoods. 

No one is exempt from Facebook's terms of service, but there are exceptions for content with inherent public value. For example, Zuckerberg defended the decision to leave up a Trump post where the president called for the National Guard to be sent into Minneapolis due to the George Floyd protests. 

"Although the post had a troubling historical reference, we decided to leave it up because the National Guard references meant we read it as a warning about state action, and we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force," Zuckerberg wrote. 

The volume of content posted on platforms like Facebook and the number of organizations involved make it hard to monitor everything, pointed out BPI's Bleeker. Anything can be spun out as fact if said by an official, regardless of if the source material is accurate.

"I'm not nearly as worried about the entities in the area that every journalist is watching," he said. "I'm literally worried about the stuff we are not." 

The number of candidates using Facebook's platforms will only continue to grow as more people use them. When considering Facebook alone, the daily active user rate in the U.S. and Canada reached 196 million accounts, an increase of almost 4 percent compared to the same period in 2019. The company credited the increase to more people staying at home during the pandemic, but even before the coronavirus, political ad budgets were already shifting because of changing behavior.

"Traditional TV viewing reach is eroding so quickly," Socialbakers' Ben-Itzhak said. "Just from a planning perspective, you absolutely need to add other media to your TV campaign."

In addition, Biden and Trump raised $1.51 billion and $1.57 billion, respectively, through the middle of October, according to FEC filings. They've put dollars toward any platform willing to accept it, and with the country growing increasingly divided, future candidates will do so as well. "As other competitors decide not to accept political dollars, political advertisers have to go to Facebook," Magna's Létang pointed out. 

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