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2020: the year of nonstop politics. How will social media play its part?

January 7, 2020

Show of hands: whose 2020 New Years Resolution has not fallen by the wayside now that we’ve clocked in at January 7th? If you’re still going strong, congrats. You win bragging rights over the rest of us ship-jumpers. 

But whether we’ve abandoned our 2020 goals or are still pushing through them, the year rushes on, and with it will be the unrelenting talk of politics. For so many—regardless of where they might fall on the political spectrum—a mention of 2020 is synonymous with the presidential election. 

And, at least among marketers and avid political obsessives—two groups in which this blog author counts herself—the topic of social media companies and their role inevitably follows a mention of the election. Sometimes that includes disdain for Mark Zuckerberg and what some consider a miscarriage of his and his company’s public responsibility; others simply wonder in what ways the tech giants have impacted our public and electoral lives. 

And it’s true: the role of social media (primarily Facebook but also Twitter, Instagram, and Google) in this election is enormous. Just as was the case in 2016, other countries are manipulating Facebook to sway the US elections; The Telegraph reported in October that Facebook had discovered Russia- and Iran-based campaigns aimed at manipulating the American electorate on Facebook. 

The granddaddy of all the social media channels, Facebook, rolled out what it called proactive efforts to stymie foreign election interference in advance of the election, having (maybe?) learned from its 2016 apathy. Those efforts include improved security for elected officials’ pages; labeling false information as such (but not removing that information); and banning political ads meant to suppress voter turnout. Facebook has banned hundreds of users, Pages, and Groups, as well as users and posts on Instagram, which it owns.

Twitter removed thousands of fake or suspicious accounts in 2019, and are sure to continue that removal in 2020. In November, the channel also announced new—and somewhat murky—policies on political ads, including barring ads of any kind by politicians, political parties, or elected or appointed government officials. Twitter’s full policy can be found HERE, and more info about the scope of both Facebook’s and Twitter’s efforts to remove suspicious users is HERE.

Google recently announced its efforts to limit the level of targeting political ads. Under the updated policy, these ads can only be targeted by age, gender, and location at a postal code level. As for the content of those ads, Google will keep their policies the same for all advertisers, barring untrue, false, or misleading information. On Google’s own explainer about its ads policy, it offers this less-than-encouraging closing: “So we expect that the number of political ads on which we take action will be very limited—but we will continue to do so for clear violations.”

Spotify, too, has blocked political ads on its channel, stating that it doesn’t have a robust-enough process for reviewing and verifying political ads. It's worth noting that Spotify’s revenue comes primarily from its 113 million paying subscribers who aren’t exposed to ads, perhaps making it easier for the brand to forgo the revenue of political ads

Considering all of this—the new policies meant to curb anti-democratic social media activity, the channels’ removal of suspicious accounts, the banning of political ads on some channels—it’s clear that social media companies are taking their role in democracy more seriously than they did in 2016. Now the question is: will it be enough?