Facebook's $8,000,000 in-kind campaign contribution to Donald Trump, and why it's time to end legal favoritism for digital ad platforms

A stunning new report out this morning at The Markup shows that Facebook charged Joe Biden's campaign more than twice as much for ads targeting swing states over July and August than it did the Trump campaign. Biden's campaign paid an average of $34.34 per 1,000 "impressions" - displays of the ad in someone's Facebook newsfeed - while Trump paid just $16.55.

The discrepancy suddenly disappeared right as the report was likely under preparation at The Markup, as if Facebook figured out someone was pulling the data from their own APIs, and the Trump campaign is now paying a slightly higher rate than Joe Biden's. Still, overall, the reporting shows that the Biden-Harris campaign would have saved $8 million were they charged the same rate as Trump-Pence.

Evidently, Facebook's charged the Trump campaign less because their algorithm rated the Trump content, selling Joe Biden as a pawn for the "radical left," as more controversial, whereas Biden's ads, oriented to talking about issues like Medicare and drug prices, was supposedly more milquetoast. Why would that matter? Because, as we have discussed before, Facebook's algorithm has a sensationalism bias, meaning that it would elevate and spread Trump's sensationalism more quickly than Biden's issue oriented message. That, in turn, means that the Trump ad would be displayed more often than the Biden ad, which means even if the rate per 1,000 displays is low, Facebook would essentially make money on bulk.

Television advertising is regulated by Congress, and TV stations are barred from charging one candidate more for the same airtime than another, and federal law requires that political campaigns be charged the lowest rate a station charges of any advertiser, and it even requires political ads in newspapers and magazines to offer political campaigns rates comparable to their commercial advertising rates.

Congress must update federal laws on campaign and political advertising to include digital ads. Twitter has, to its credit, chosen not to allow political advertising at all given the potential for abuse, but Google and Facebook continue to allow them. So Congress must ensure that giant social media platforms play fair.

It should be as easy as (1) applying the same pricing requirements as TV ads and (2) creating a system of transparency and disclosure. No advertising outlets - including digital ones - ought to be able to charge one campaign more than another in the same media market, regardless of whom within the market an ad targets. An ad targeted to whites without college degree should not be worth less than one targeting seniors on Medicare. Platforms also should not be allowed to charge political campaigns more than they do their commercial clients.

Congress should also create a system of real-time transparency for digital ad-sellers. This is data that is readily available from the companies' private but live APIs, and it should be fairly easy to release the data in real time, at least for, let's say, six months immediately preceding a primary or general election. This data should be publicly available from all digital platforms in one central reporting place.

Lastly, any discrepancy in rates should be considered an in-kind contribution to the campaign charged less, and the companies ought to be required to refund the money to the campaign paying more.

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