Mark Zuckerberg personally made the decision that Facebook would keep running political ads, even though the ads were weaponised in 2016

GettyFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • As the US gears up for its next presidential election in 2020, citizens can expect to keep seeing political ads on Facebook.
  • Internally the company is dealing with the fallout from reports that its platforms were used to manipulate voters in elections around the world.
  • The latest big change is that Facebook will no longer pay commissions to salespeople for selling political ads.
  • But political advertising is a multibillion business, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself decided that Facebook should continue to take part in it.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As the US gears up for its next presidential election in 2020, citizens can expect to keep seeing political ads on Facebook.

The company will continue to run political ads, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, even as it tries to move past the scandals from its social-networking platforms being used to manipulate voters in major elections worldwide in recent years.

Facebook is making some changes to protect its political ads from being exploited by Russia or other bad actors. The company will no longer pay commissions to salespeople for selling political ads, The Journal reported.

That’s a big about-face from 2016, when Facebook not only paid commissions but also embedded its staffers into campaigns to help them with their Facebook targeting strategies. It offered such white-glove service to both the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign. Since Trump’s campaign was smaller and less digitally savvy, it used this service heavily. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, even praised Facebook for helping it raise money, Wired reported in 2016. And Trump’s digital-advertising director, Gary Coby, called one of Facebook’s staffers his MVP.

Political ads were once viewed as a promising growth area for Facebook, but now, as Facebook faces increasing scrutiny over how it handles user data, such ads have fallen out of favour internally, one employee told The Journal.

At one point, senior executives even debated whether they should ban political ads altogether.

But CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself decided that the company would remain in that business, an employee told The Journal.

Facebook thinks it’s doing a civic duty by running political ads

Political ads are big bucks. Campaigns spent just shy of $US9 billion on ads in the 2018 midterm elections, up 8% from the 2014 midterms, according to Borrell Associates. Borrell said total digital-media ads soared to $US1.8 billion for the midterms, or 20% of the total, compared with $US70 million in 2014, MediaPost reported.

Facebook’s share was about $US284 million, according to estimates by Tech for Campaigns. And Tech for Campaigns said that 2020 digital spending has already begun, with Trump’s campaign outspending all other players on Facebook and Google by millions.

Last year, in addition to ending the practice of embedding staffers in campaigns, Facebook also vowed to manually review political ads, an expensive fix that ran the danger of making the unit unprofitable. Facebook wouldn’t comment to The Journal on if the political-ad business is profitable, but The Journal reported that ad reviewers are a combination of automation and humans.

Facebook employs about 500 people on its election teams in Menlo Park, California, and uses pop-up teams worldwide as needed in places such as Dublin and Singapore, Politico reported.

Facebook last year also launched a searchable database to show who is paying for ads, although a Business Insider investigation showed that the tool can be misled.

Facebook declined Business Insider’s request for more information on the profitability of the unit but pointed to a post Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public-policy director for global elections, wrote last year defending Facebook’s decision not to ban the ads, when the company debated if it should do so.

Those that didn’t want to ban the ads said “banning political ads on Facebook would tilt the scales in favour of incumbent politicians and candidates with deep pockets. Digital advertising is typically more affordable than TV or print ads, giving less well-funded candidates a relatively economical way to reach their future constituents,” she wrote.

So the company feels like this is more like a civic duty than a moneymaker, she told The Journal.

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