The Facebook political ad “ban” isn’t all that. Here’s why.

The ban leaves lots of room for creative adjustments and workarounds.

By James Ostrowski and James Owens; editing: Karen Wickre.

Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Facebook’s recent ban on new political ads in the week leading up to election day may have less impact than the company intended.

Let’s look at why that might be. First, what did Facebook intend by banning political ads? In his September 3 post announcing a variety of election-related features on the platform, Mark Zuckerberg said “in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims. So in the week before the election, we won’t accept new political or issue ads.”*

By “contesting new claims,” Zuckerberg is referring to the ability of campaigns and individuals to object to any information in an ad. Both campaigns can continue running ads that appeared before October 26, which would already be available in the Facebook Ads Library.

There are two main reasons why this seemingly sensible move may not serve voters effectively. One reason has to do with how the Trump campaign already uses Facebook; the other is a new voting trend.

Over the last four years, Trump’s campaign has grown a large organic presence on the platform. Without any ad spend, his organic reach via his primary Facebook page has 31 million followers; Biden has three million. Then there is the Trump ecosystem of 25 more Trump-affiliated pages which attract millions of fans and followers. And Trump-friendly partisan right outlets also have huge reach: last Friday five of the ten top-performing link posts across U.S. Facebook originated from right wing outlets.

Because the organic (non-ad) content is entirely exempt from the ads ban, there are no protections from misinformation on these partisan and supporter pages; they are free to disseminate falsehoods.

When looking at the paid side, Trump’s ad strategy isn’t just about the amount the campaign spends; it’s also the number of ads they run. Digital teams test thousands of creative variations in order to optimize content constantly that drives the most engagement — donations, clicks, shares, and sign-ups — similar to the way direct response marketing works. For example, since her death on September 18, Trump’s team has run 2,400 Facebook ad variations mentioning Justice Ginsburg and the Supreme Court vacancy. As for Team Biden, their media strategy is to invest more in other channels than Facebook.

A possible loophole in the ads ban is that any ad prepped to run after Oct. 26 has to serve at least one impression on or before that date. Facebook has confirmed that any ad generating at least 1 impression will be visible on their transparency report, so if there’s any concern about revealing an 11th-hour message strategy early, Facebook should not be in your mix for that last week.

Having tested thousands of ads on multiple pages in the days prior to the ban, Trump can simply keep running the most effective ones till Nov. 3. In short, because of how the Trump campaign already uses Facebook, the ban may not apply or be breached by the Oct. 26 workaround.

As to this year’s anomalous voting pattern, we’re seeing record-breaking counts for early voting. Given fears about COVID-19, the U.S. Postal Service and voter suppression, up to 80 million people are expected to cast their ballots before election day. Contrast this to 2016, when about 28 million people voted by mail. Get Out the Vote (GOTV) is well underway.

Accounting for all of these factors, campaigns can still launch strong GOTV messages just ahead of the deadline. Advertisers can still adjust their spending and targeting on existing ads (details are here) even after the blackout period. Our advice is to move up creative production timelines at least 10 days for any last-minute GOTV messaging. Facebook is also still imposing its 72-hour review period, so the ads themselves should actually be submitted for approval by Oct. 23, not Oct. 26, in case the ads get stuck in review.

The political ads ban was intended to fight misinformation and help voters during a fractious period. But no matter how well-intentioned, the narrow approach and the various exceptions mentioned here will blunt its effect.

*Just last week, the company announced an additional restriction: it will not allow either campaign to run ads prematurely claiming victory before election officials have confirmed national results, which might not happen until after Nov. 3. We hope this might stop deliberate disinformation, but as with the original ban, it doesn’t address what might occur on organic pages where messages, not ads, can proliferate.

Sources: Facebook Ads Library, FEC.gov

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