Facebook continues to explore potential changes to its political advertising policies, none of which address the fundamental underlying issues arising from Facebook’s unchecked power, but one proposal in particular is especially ill-advised.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that Facebook is considering “imposing a blackout on political ads in the 72 hours before an election.”
The Facebook team have specifically mentioned Australian elections as the inspiration for this blackout period idea. I was involved with Australian elections in 2016 and 2019 and it’s clear to me that Facebook doesn’t actually understand what the blackout rule is or its context.
The Blackout is Only for Broadcast Advertising
The 72 hours of the blackout period in Australian elections are, in fact, when the most money is spent online because the blackout is only for advertising on TV and radio. It would be a totally new concept on Facebook’s part to ban online advertising within the 72 hour window.
Relying only on organic distribution of political content during this period would lead to an uncontrollable proliferation of rumors, disinformation, and fake news because the Facebook news feed algorithm prioritizes “engagement” (read: outrage) over truthfulness. Campaigns and other organizations would be left with no way to fight back.
Australia Has Compulsory Voting
This is the key context missing from Facebook’s flirtation with a blackout rule: Australian citizens are fined if they don’t vote and so the country has extremely high voter turnout. Campaigns in Australia do not have to worry about driving voters to the polls.
In the U.S. this period of time – the 72 hours before an election – is get out the vote (GOTV). Limiting campaigns’ ability to reach voters on Facebook during this critical time will have immeasurable impacts in suppressing voter turnout. Facebook’s own research has shown how just a small nudge on the platform drove 340,000 extra people to vote in the 2010 US elections – a 0.6% increase nationally.
Also relevant to this discussion is that earlier this year, a multi-partisan group of Australian senators unanimously called on the elimination of the blackout rule, which was introduced in 1992. If Australia is looking to get rid of a 27 year old regulation that no longer reflects the realities of modern campaigns and media, why would Facebook want to take the policy worldwide?
It reminds me a little of a student that hasn’t been paying attention copying off of a classmate’s homework and not understanding what they’re doing. We should expect better from one of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful companies that plays an outsize role in our society.