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Campaign Strategists: Facebook Advertising Platform Rewards Extreme Political Ads

Bhaswati Sarkar
Bhaswati Sarkar
She likes to lose herself in music and daydreams quite often. Travelling excites her and photography is her passion- nature is her favorite subject. Writing is cathartic for her. A happy-go-lucky kind of person, she tries to remain calm and serene through daily life.

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The word is that campaign strategists have the opinion that Facebook’s advertising platform accolades extreme messages more than any other platform, which is why campaign strategists plan on promoting provocative and extreme Facebook political ads in the face of midterm elections. However, Facebook Inc. FB 0.99% has said that such tactics often backfire as extreme ads that can be hidden by users who disagree with them.

This has accounted for a controversy regarding Facebook’s principle of promoting healthy debate as many believe that Facebook’s platform contributes to mainly dissent.

Midterm campaign candidates and strategists believe that Facebook’s cost structure and its ability to target slices of voters enhances its effectiveness as a tool to motivate people to act in support of a candidate or a cause. Jeff Roe, founder of Axiom Strategies, said, “You’re not trying to persuade anybody on Facebook. You’re trying to reach a different part of people’s brains.”

Candidates, consultants, and some former Facebook employees reveal that when the platform’s ad auction system shows users ads that are likely to resonate with them, it often rewards gripping political messages with lower cost. According to a predictive ‘relevance score’ given by Facebook to an ad, it can “lower the cost of reaching people,” with a higher relevance score (based on video views, sales, and other forms) lowering the cost of reaching people.

Moreover, ads shared by users can spread more widely across the network free of charge, and that drives down the effective cost because the advertiser isn’t paying for engagement.

According to people who have bought political ads for Facebook, the aforesaid company encourages campaigns to fiddle with words and images to help ads go viral. Company officials and strategists expressed it surprisingly difficult to predict which ads would go viral.

Even so, campaign consultants for both the Republican and Democratic parties admit to urging candidates to spend more of their advertising budgets on Facebook this election cycle.

According to Borrell Associates, a research firm that tracks political ad expenditure, in 2016 a major portion of the approximately $1.4 billion spent on political advertisements and campaigns went to Facebook. Pre-2016 elections, former Democratic strategist Melissa Ryan tested an assortment of online campaign ads including “pretty and ugly, nice and incendiary,” where the clear winner was “ugly and incendiary.”

However, many contend this verdict claiming that the ad-auction system doesn’t reward extreme messages in isolation of other factors such as the targeting criteria, the goal of the ad and the campaign budget. Additionally, when an ad gets negative responses from most, it backfires. Graham Mudd, product marketing director at Facebook, stated that” Facebook ads, political or otherwise, do not get more visibility just because they are negative. When distributed widely, negative ads usually result in more people choosing to hide or report them, which actually reduces their reach in our ad system.”

The 2016 presidential election where the Trump campaign overwhelmed Hillary Clinton on social media, cemented Facebook advertising as a successful strategy for campaigns. But Facebook executives stated that the company has not earned much on political ads and that in 2016 politics didn’t even enter the top-10 categories of Facebook advertising.

Moreover, political advertising comes as a colossal risk for the company, especially if it appears to be biased or hurting political sentiments.

This year, Facebook has changed its platform to make it easier for users to see all the campaigns managed by political advertisers and sponsors in a bid to boost transparency.

Omar Navarro, a 29-year-old Republican candidate running against Maxine Waters in California’s 43rd congressional district, has reportedly worked in social media marketing for five years before and stated that while positive messages can do well on Facebook, edgy and extreme ads perform better as “people tend to gravitate toward something that’s provocative.”

Even one Facebook ad campaign urged users to like Mr. Navarro’s page with the message, “Had enough? Help me KICK self-serving Maxine Waters out of office!” The ad, which helped Mr. Navarro gain about 20,000 new followers, depicts Ms. Waters in black and white tones and Mr. Navarro in color- “She’s painted in the dark, and I’m in the light. She’s evil, and I represent good.”

Post-2016 elections, some Facebook employees discussed ways to make the platform less of an echo chamber where users only see content that matches their worldviews. A person familiar with the internal discussions has said that one proposal called for removing a penalty that advertisements typically incur when users ‘hide’ them in their news feed. Doing so would have made it easier for political issues-based advertisers like Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association to reach people who disagree with them. The proposal was not taken seriously as Facebook doesn’t typically treat distinct types of ads differently from one another. Last week, a Facebook spokesman said that users hide political ads more than other types of ads, making political ads more expensive on average than other types of ads.

Additionally, some candidates have claimed that advertising moderate messages on Facebook can be a challenge. Jenifer Sarver, who lost in the Republican primary for a congressional seat in Texas, said that because her campaign included a one-shot of being knee-deep in marshy water while wearing a Make America Great Again hat, pledging to “drain the swamp,” which was quite moderate, she couldn’t attract as much attention on Facebook as her opponents. She stated that “civility and collaboration is not a sexy message. It was really tough to stand out.”


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