Hot off the press: Facebook is banning all political-related advertising. Quelle Surprise!

Let’s jump right into the meat, since the background is well-known and direct and no surprise to anyone who hasn’t been asleep in the digital marketing world for years now.

Since the big platforms tend to move in tandem on these sorts of changes, the question is: what’s the next move on the part of political advertisers?

Here’s my general argument:

Facebook is effectively a regulatory body in terms of ads; as is Google, and a few other gatekeepers.

And the libertarian critique of regulatory bodies is basically true, and my interpretation is that it boils down to this:

It is really, really hard to ban bad behavior (or to substantially change any behavior). But what regulation achieves is two-fold: it raises the cost of it–thus making it inaccessible to many more–while simultaneously making it substantially less transparent.

Let’s dive into that.

First, before applying it to digital advertising, let’s make sure we’re clear on the implications. If the government says, “Okay, no one can use a tax haven” then what happens? Tax haven usage doesn’t just vanish overnight. Instead, the poorer-half of people who use tax havens can’t do it anymore because it will be illegal, and instead just move their companies and their complex tax structures to be some simpler structure domiciled in something like Wisconsin where they pay more taxes than they used to. But the richer half of companies hire absurdly-expensive lawyers to figure out even more ingenious loopholes to still use tax havens. So tax havens just become unaffordable to the “merely rich” albeit still affordable to the “very rich.”

But as a consequences of this, the mechanisms needed to do this become ever-more convoluted and thus ever-less transparent. Thus making it harder for any outsider to “pierce the veil” (as they say) and figure out what actually is happening.

This applies to everything. Imagine the government makes a law saying “non-government entities can not murder innocent people!” — and personally, I definitely support not murdering innocent people! What happens? The less sophisticated who lack the ability to cleverly avoid government detection may murder fewer people. But guess what? Big, Bad Organizations intent on murdering people will just spend more money to do it in more subtle, more clever, more hidden ways. So the richest will still be able to get at their opponents. And the increasing complexity they will need to use to do so will make it even harder for, say, Government Good Guys to figure out who-did-what. That’s why there are few political assassinations these days, but many quite-interesting, ummm, accidents and “accidents.” Note to self: never become a Russian Billionaire living in London.

Now let’s wrap this around and apply this to Facebook’s ban of political advertising. Facebook’s officially-stated goal is to limit the influence of advertising on the upcoming US presidential “election.” Okay, understood.

But here’s what’s actually going to happen: the money that will be spent on political advertising, will just flow like a stream being directed to new destinations. And those new destinations will just be less direct, less obvious, and a lot less transparent than Facebook.

Just think about it from this purely practical point of view. Such-and-such campaigns have hundreds of millions of dollars–or more–allocated to be spent on advertising. One of the key platforms says, “Nope, sorry, you can’t do it here.” Will the political advertisers just return the money to their sources? Of course not. They’ll just redirect it to others.

But it gets even more subtle and even more interesting than this: what’s not going to happen is that the money will be redirected away on Facebook. No one holds up their hands, in exasperation, to give up! Instead, the political advertising will still continue on Facebook… it just won’t be labeled as such.

Let’s take an example which, of course, has to be 100% hypothetical because no one, nowhere, would ever do anything like this.

Imagine you were running a large scale political campaign. And then some major advertiser said, “There can no longer be paid, obvious, direct advertisements for your cause or your campaign!” The next day, ads are no longer appearing on the platform. What do you do?

Here’s what I would do–hypothetically, had I been thrown into a situation like this. I’d boot up some news sites. They will be real news, with 100% factually correct news. They would get real-sounding domains with things like “Gazette” and “Independent” in the URLs and the titles. They’d be well-designed. They would reprint, legally, news from Reuters, AP, and the major outlets. From all outside appearances, they would be indistinguishable from any not-tiny, quality news source online.

The site would also have a section for certain articles that are colored by certain biases.

A stronger version would be that the section with the colored biases might also:

  • Not be labeled as such
  • Widely integrated into the newspaper
  • On-page advertisements for the key articles
  • Have a comments section with lots of comments reinforcing the key points of the colored bias

And perhaps most important of all:

  • Use semi-click-bait-type headlines

Then, I would take out ads for these articles. Perhaps on the banned platform, but perhaps on other platforms–to seed virality on the banned platform! Perhaps with the semi-click-bait text in the ads as well.

All very A/B tested, of course.

Thus, I could thus seed popular conversation on an issue–and ensure it is framed in the way I want it to be framed.

Importantly, this strategy is much more effective than merely taking out ads. But it is much more expensive, time-consuming. It requires sufficient time and resources to execute well. And as a result, small-up-and-coming politicians can’t compete with The Big Boys because they rarely have the time or the money. (“Rarely” because they’re often supported by Other Big Boys in the background and thus do have access to the resources needed.)

A result of all of these is that the advertising becomes almost indistinguishable from news. And over time the “almost indistinguishable” becomes “fully indistinguishable.” So what Facebook is really doing is just putting another nail in the coffin of the idea that “news” (and “news media”) could be separated from “advertising.” That has long been a truism, it is likely that “once upon a time” there was a bit more wiggle room and that independent news, even in some minor flicker of a flame existed. But Facebook is now helping extinguish that last bits of the flame.