Aaron Bartnick Contributor Share on Twitter Aaron Bartnick (@AaronBartnick) served as Digital Director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign. He is currently completing graduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
As the digital director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s 2020 presidential campaign, I was responsible for everything the campaign did on the internet: the emails you claim to hate, the videos we hoped would go viral, the online infrastructure that supported organizers in the field, and more. But our biggest investment of both time and money, by far, was in digital advertising.
For our campaign and many others, digital ads were the single biggest expense outside of payroll. Yet these ads are terrible for campaigns, toxic for democracy and are even bad for the companies who profit off them. Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took a bold first step in banning political ads — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai should follow suit.
Digital ads are one of the most important channels for acquiring new supporters and serving them that all-important question: “Will you chip in $10, $5, or whatever you can to support our campaign? Even $1 helps!” When the Democratic National Committee announced in February that presidential candidates would need a minimum of 65,000 individual donors to qualify for the first two debates, acquiring these small dollar donors became a do-or-die priority for campaigns.
The trouble is, when 25 campaigns are competing in a Democratic donor market that had just five competitors in 2016, and when each campaign is desperate to acquire new donors, prices go up. Way up.
We — and I suspect many others — routinely ran what were supposed to be revenue-generating ads at a loss, spending $10, $20, or even $30 in order to acquire one new donor and their contribution of as little as $1. This is a terrible deal for campaigns: they hemorrhage cash in order to lose money acquiring more, costing weeks or months of valuable runway, all while Facebook pockets the difference. At scale, the consequence is massive: the remaining 18 Democratic candidates have already spent over $53 million on Facebook and Google this cycle, most of it these kinds of ads.
This is $53 million — plus millions more from prolific former candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov. Jay Inslee — which would have otherwise been invested in infrastructure to turn out voters and help Democrats in November no matter who is the nominee. Instead, it went straight into Facebook and Google’s coffers.
These ads are toxic to our democracy.
Due to short online attention spans, the character limits that enforce them and the engagement algorithms that act as gatekeepers to the digital world, campaigns must distill complex issues down to a two sentence pseudo-essence that would leave even debate moderators unsatisfied. And if you want to have a prayer of anyone clicking on your ad, it had better be as inflammatory as possible — people click when they’re angry.
The easiest way to do this is to simply make things up, something most campaigns would never consider, but which Zuckerberg made clear in congressional testimony this week his platform would happily enable. Companies like Facebook and Google force us to present voters with a world that is black and white, in which all nuance is distraction, and in which civic engagement is something that can be done from your phone for just $1 (Unless you’d like to make this a monthly recurring donation? Your support has never been more crucial!). This does not an informed, healthy democracy make.
Political ads are not even good for the companies that serve them. On a quarterly earnings call the same day as Dorsey’s announcement, Zuckerberg estimated that political ads run by candidates would make up just 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. Assuming similar performance to the previous 12 months, in which Facebook earned $66 billion, this would be about $330 million in political ad revenue.
In exchange, Facebook has earned itself years of bad PR, increased regulatory risk as congressional leaders are beginning to see it as a national security problem, and even existential risk as leading presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break up the company if elected. All over revenues that hardly even justify the opportunity cost of Zuckerberg’s hours of preparation for congressional hearings.
So who benefits from these kinds of ads? Those who want to create a chaotic information environment in the United States in which facts are subjective, reality is ephemeral and the only information you can trust comes from the people manipulating social media to feed it to you. It is therefore no surprise that one of the first organizations to condemn Dorsey’s decision was the Russian state-sponsored media outlet Russia Today.
Presented with a choice between minuscule revenues and existential risk, between patching a bug in American democracy and abetting Russian propaganda, Dorsey made a wise choice for both his bottom line and his country. Zuckerberg and Pichai would do well to follow his lead.