The Bloomberg campaign has been sweeping the United States with aggressive meme campaigns that attempt to make the candidate seem relatable to online audiences. But with intensified scrutiny against social media platforms after the Cambridge Analytica scandal unfolded after the 2016 election, social media platforms are being held to a new level of accountability in 2020—or at least they’re trying to be.
Facebook, which made the controversial announcement in 2019 that it would not be fact checking political advertising, has at least changed its strategy for the 2020 election to help make political advertising more transparent on both Facebook and Instagram. Advertisers on the platform are now required to go through an identity-verification process before publishing any advertisement that could be deemed political. Our own ad request for a boosted post promoting a piece about technology’s influence on agriculture was denied, on the grounds that it was too politically-charged of a topic to fly under Facebook’s radar.
Twitter, on the other hand, announced last fall that it would be banning political advertising altogether—a move that was both praised by critics and condemned by others. Many consider disinformation and platform manipulation to be a greater political threat on Twitter than paid-for campaigns from any single candidate. To ban transparent campaigns meant that there would be more room for political discourse between accounts that may not be verified, meaning that it would be easy for voters to be swayed politically if one candidate were, at the very least, portrayed as the favored choice.
Bloomberg’s campaign likely knew what it was getting into by opting to work with meme accounts.
With all of that being said, Bloomberg’s campaign opted for a social media strategy that first appeared as cringe-worthy, missing the mark in communicating effectively to its demographic in a way that felt less authentic than any other strategy would have been otherwise. In February, meme accounts like Grape Juice Boys, World Star Hip Hop, FuckJerry, and Tank Sinatra among others began posting paid political content sponsored by the Bloomberg campaign directly.
The meme accounts have amassed millions of followers by way of making their accounts private, encouraging people to follow their account in order to see the content they post. In doing so, they’re also able to control who is able to see their content—often preventing Facebook officials from being able to monitor their posts unless they do so through the company. Paid-for content on these platforms is by no means against any terms and conditions set forth by Facebook, but it does cross the line between what political advertisers can and cannot do.
In this case, many of the meme accounts involved in the Bloomberg paid ad campaigns failed to disclose or follow the guidelines and structures created by Facebook for political advertising. Since Facebook has no way to monitor financial transactions that take place off of the apps, the company relies on its internal structuring to assume that each account will be transparent about its paid campaigns. In other words, creators are allowed to take money from political campaigns so long as they disclose that information correctly in the branded content tool. Many of these meme accounts—which remain private to this day—did not.
Facebook was not made aware of the advertisements until after they were launched.
The New York Times reported last week that Facebook was made aware of Bloomberg’s recent social media campaign strategy only after the political ads were published to popular meme accounts across platforms like Instagram. “Facebook’s election team learned about the Bloomberg campaign’s plan to hire social media influencers through a report in The Times. On an internal message board used by the team, seen by The Times, the story was posted with a question: ‘Do we know about this?'” writes The New York Times.
The 2016 election brought with it many changes to how social media networks approach politics. The 2017 revelation that Cambridge Analytica had used Facebook-mined data points to create highly specific advertising campaigns on behalf of the Trump Administration proved that social media posed a threat to democracy. Legislators cannot keep up with technology in the ways that they would need to be in order to prevent things like this from happening again, and Bloomberg’s controversial approach to social media advertising proved that no matter how prepared networks like Facebook think they are, they’re still going to be hit with inevitable surprises.