Three months and a whole lifetime ago, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and founder of the world’s most popular social media site, found himself on the defensive about his company’s role in the spread of fake news.
Critics argued that Facebook’s sloppy algorithm provided the perfect ecosystem in which fraudulent and fabricated information could masquerade as fact and spread, unchecked, across users’ news feeds. Some went so far as to blame Facebook for costing Hillary Clinton the election. Zuckerberg was forceful in his rebuttals, calling those arguments “crazy” and “extremely unlikely.”
Imagine his surprise this week, then, when he learned that his own employees are now boasting of Facebook’s ability to swing an entire election—if the price is right.
Facebook’s marketing department has a web page set up to document success stories. Most of them are examples of businesses that leveraged Facebook’s advertising network into higher sales, larger audiences, and better customer reviews. But nestled somewhere between the pages for Panera Bread and Cheetos are pages for politicians like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and former Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
On each page, Facebook’s business team breaks down some metrics about how these political campaigns leveraged the platform to boost donations and turnout on election day. On Johnson’s page, Facebook boasts of a 6.8-point bump in the candidate’s favorability numbers among moderate voters.
But it is wording on Sen. Toomey’s “success story” that has struck a troubling chord. After noting that Toomey was facing a tough re-election in 2016, Facebook touted it’s ability to “significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability,” and that the campaign’s “made-for-Facebook creative strategy was an essential component to Senator Pat Toomey’s re-election, as the senator won by less than 100,000 votes (of nearly 6 million votes cast).”
The Philadelphia Business Journal noted that Toomey’s campaign outspent Democratic rival Katie McGinty by more than a two to one margin on digital content, most of that directed towards Facebook. In return, the campaign was able to create more content specifically tailored to Facebook’s platform rather than recycling things like television ads.
Of course, none of this is illegal, or even necessarily immoral. On its surface, there is nothing fundamentally different about one campaign outspending another on things like advertising or content production.
But because Facebook exists as both a free and open platform that anyone can use and as a business that relies on advertising revenue, their tango with electoral politics does open the door to some unpleasant hypotheticals. For instance, users are being asked to trust that Facebook’s algorithm—that supposedly impartial and coldly calculating nerve system powering huge corners of the platform—doesn’t start punishing one candidate’s efforts to organize on social media because his or her opponent is paying more.
You needn’t dabble in hypotheticals to find problems, though. After Facebook was accused of not doing enough to quash the spread of dangerous misinformation, the company’s defense was that the platform couldn’t possibly have swayed enough of their almost 200 million US users on Election Day. Its own business team begs to differ.