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

Mark ZuckerbergGetty

  • As the United States gears up for its next big 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 sales people 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 United States gears up for its next big 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 of its social networking platforms being used to manipulate voters in major worldwide elections in recent years.

Facebook is making some changes to protect its political ads from being exploited by Russians 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 even embedded its staffers into campaigns to help them with their Facebook targeting strategies. It offered such white-glove service to both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. Since Trump's campaign was smaller and less digitally savvy, Trump's campaign used this service heavily. Trump's campaign chairman Brad Parscale 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 favor internally, one employee told the WSJ.

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

But CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself decided that the company will remain in that business, an employee told the WSJ.

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

Political ads are big bucks. Campaigns spent just shy of $9 billion on ads in the 2018 mid-terms, up 8% over the 2014 mid-terms, according to Borrell Associates. Borrell says total digital media ads soared to $1.8 billion for the mid-terms, or 20% of the total, compared to $70 million in 2014, reports MediaPost.

Facebook's share was about $284 million, according to estimates by Tech for Campaigns. And Tech for Campaigns says 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 with campaigns, Facebook also vowed to manually review political ads, an expensive fix which ran the danger of making the unit unprofitable. Facebook wouldn't comment to the WSJ 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 like Dublin and Singapore, Politico reports.

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 mislead.

Facebook declined Business Insider's request for more information on the profitability of the unit but pointed to a post Katie Harbath, Facebook's global elections public policy director, 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 argued that "banning political ads on Facebook would tilt the scales in favor 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 money maker, she told the WSJ.

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