Online platforms have made bans on political advertising a core part of their plans to mitigate the spread of disinformation around the US elections. Twitter moved early, banning political ads in October 2019. Facebook stopped accepting new ads last week and will indefinitely remove all political ads, old and new, after the polls close on Tuesday (the ban also applies to Instagram). Google and YouTube, meanwhile, will remove all political ads for “at least a week” once polls close.
Turning off the spigot of political advertising is intended to limit the risk of sophisticated propaganda campaigns that could lead to more confusion or unrest. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hear from political groups at all: because of the way that each platform’s rules work, you’ll still be hearing plenty after the polls close, and in some cases they will still be paying to reach you. Campaigns also might need to fundraise after November 3 in the instance of legal challenges, meaning messages could keep coming for months.
For all platforms, what makes something a “political ad” is cloaked in regulatory legalese, but it generally means paid content that mentions a campaign, a candidate, the election, or social issues from any advertisers, including political action committees and nonprofit organizations.
Here are some of the routes and loopholes they’ll be using:
Electoral candidates and campaigns will still be posting on their social media accounts. This includes personal accounts and any groups or pages related to their campaign, their party, or aligned advocacy groups. It’s likely that organizations will coordinate the sharing of those messages in an effort to get in front of audiences they previously had to pay to reach.
If any candidate declares victory prior to official election results, Twitter and Facebook have committed to adding labels to those posts. Both companies say they will remove posts that incite violence. But there are concerns about consistent enforcement of these policies.
Political texting has exploded during this election, and texts are likely to keep hitting your phone beyond Tuesday. Without social media advertising, texting is the easiest way for campaigns to mass-message people outside their supporter network. Data on mobile-phone numbers is widely accessible to both campaigns and interest groups, and the channel skirts regulations from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) around political disclosures. Text messages are also notoriously hard to fact-check: watch out for hard-to-trace texts that claim a victor.
Emails are also a favored channel for campaign communications and will certainly continue to come in after the polls close.
The use of influencers for political campaigning, particularly on Instagram, has exploded in 2020, and the Biden and Bloomberg campaign both used influencers as part of their outreach strategy. Facebook has said that Instagram influencers who are paid by a campaign or other group that would usually be subject to ad restrictions are bound by its requirements around disclosure and political advertising.
Recent research indicates that disclosure does not happen consistently. Further, volunteer networks of influencer messaging are under no restrictions so long as they only volunteer intermittently, according to the FEC. Networks of celebrities and “nano-influencers” are free to post any unpaid messages, even if the messages themselves are written, designed, and coordinated by political campaigns.
Both presidential campaigns have developed apps for their supporters that allow them to send unlimited push notifications to users. The reach of the apps is obviously limited to those who have downloaded them, including many of each candidate’s base supporters. The Trump campaign app, particularly, collects a great deal of surveillance data on its users, including location and Bluetooth tracking, which could allow it to send notifications based on geographical triggers.
Coordinated message networks
Organic networks of friends and family members are a great way for political campaigns to garner support, since they have trust and personalization built in. Campaigns and candidates are likely to continue to communicate via those networks using things like scripts and text templates to help supporters talk to their networks in private, unregulated spaces.
For example, a friend of yours might receive a text message from the Trump campaign that includes a text template meant for sharing, or from the Biden campaign that prompts people to reach out to friends with specific messaging.