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Facebook’s awkward election sauce — too toxic for 2020?

Social media giant may be a political pariah, but it’s still essential to politicians

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News and Facebook in August 2015 in Cleveland. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, fields a question during the first Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News and Facebook in August 2015 in Cleveland. (Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — When Democrats hold their presidential primary debates this year, two political heavies from 2016 may be absent from the stage — Fox News and Facebook.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez announced last Wednesday that Fox News will not get a debate during the current election cycle.

Neither the Republican nor Democratic parties will say on the record whether or not Facebook will be a presidential debate partner this time around. The DNC has sanctioned twelve debates, partnering with CNN and NBC on the first two. That’s all we know so far.

Keeping Facebook off the presidential debate stage would be the strongest political reproach yet for the tech giant’s questionable activities during the 2016 election.

It is possible that Facebook may join Fox News as a brand that is simply too toxic for the biggest shows in American electoral politics.

The irony of Facebook’s political brand being in crisis is that while parties can shun the platform, campaigns cannot win elections without logging in.

While Fox News is essential to Republican campaigns, Facebook is essential to all political campaigns. Democrats do not need Fox News to win elections. Facebook, they do.

Facebook’s election rise

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in his corporate toddlerhood in 2008 when Barack Obama won Indiana and the White House in what the political world called “the Facebook election.”

Seven years later, Fox News and Facebook were the obvious partnership combination for the first GOP presidential debate. Nearly the entire U.S. electorate was on Facebook, and everyone likes a good show.

Fox News had both the highest-rated political shows and the most-prolific presidential debate producer in television history in the late Roger Ailes, then the network’s CEO. Facebook had the ability to livestream the Fox News broadcast for a massive, unduplicated audience.

It was a match made for American broadcasting.

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At the first GOP debate in Cleveland in August 2015, Fox News delivered a masterpiece of political theater. A record-shattering 24 million viewers tuned in to see Megyn Kelly famously spar with Donald Trump about Rosie O’Donnell. Another 7.5 million tuned in on Facebook, contributing 20 million user interactions in the form of shares, comments, and likes.

The on-screen, co-equal brand interplay seemed to (falsely) imply to audiences an interchangeability between Fox News and Facebook as sources for reliable political news and information.

Subsequent presidential debates followed the Fox News/Facebook model, pairing news and tech companies to simulcast the election stage for television and digital audiences.

Tech partners such as Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were responsible for the debates’ livestreams. They also sponsored a backstage hospitality lounge with coffee, snacks and branded elections swag for a VIP guest list of cutthroat election operatives, party elites, and political news media A-listers.

(Full disclosure: As the DNC’s booker in 2015-16, I was on-site at the Democratic presidential primary debates in Las Vegas and Miami.)

An all-access pass

Debate simulcasting partnerships gave Silicon Valley an all-access pass to American politics, something Facebook still retains despite its pariah status. And even without a debate partnership, Facebook’s elections team will be a crucial behind-the-scenes player in 2020. 

Zuckerberg wrote last September that Facebook’s sins of elections past sparked an internal discussion about banning political advertising on the platform altogether as a “simple and attractive” solution to the company’s mounting crises of user confidence.

“But we decided against it,” Zuckerberg wrote, “not due to money, as this new verification process is costly and so we no longer make any meaningful profit on political ads — but because we believe in giving people a voice. We didn’t want to take away an important tool many groups use to engage in the political process.”

That’s fair. Sacrificing a promising revenue stream would help undermine Facebook’s systemic threat to the election system, but it would also send spending to other platforms where advertisers can manipulate potential voters for a fee.

More than $5.7 billion was spent on the 2018 midterms. Billions more will be spent between now and election night next year. Why would Facebook concede its take from the political purses of good actors and bad just to try and do the right thing?

Zuckerberg’s decision not to ban political ads means that neither political party can afford to swear off Facebook’s political capabilities altogether. Virtually every voter and nonvoter in the United States uses Facebook, Instagram (which Facebook owns), or both. The platform is ubiquitous across the electorate.

As a result, Facebook’s advertising platform to offer far deeper user targeting at a lower price point than any competing service that election campaigns can pay to promote its political propaganda on the internet.

Any number of tech companies can replace Facebook in the television/tech brand partnerships model for a debate. Where Facebook is irreplaceable is in the electioneering toolkit campaigns use to win elections.

Keeping Facebook from this cycle’s presidential debate stages is a no-brainer. This symbolic gesture would help distance Democrats and Republicans from Facebook’s toxic corporate brand. Don’t be surprised if it happens.

Meanwhile, the true act of political courage that we are unlikely to see this election cycle is a candidate for national office pledging that their campaign will not use Facebook in 2020.

Pablo Manriquez is the news communications director for Roll Call. He was a longtime contributor and worked for the Democratic National Committee as a booker during the 2016 election. Follow him on Instagram @Pablo.Manriquez.