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How Facebook rewards polarizing political ads

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Programming note: The Interface is off Monday for Labor Day. I'll also be off Thursday and Friday to
 
August 31 · Issue #199 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: The Interface is off Monday for Labor Day. I’ll also be off Thursday and Friday to attend XOXO Fest in Portland, OR. Let me know if you’re going to be around!
Last October, I examined how the dynamics of political ads on Facebook could reward posts that polarized us:
As the debate intensifies around Russian ad buys in the US election, a fundamental aspect of Facebook’s platform has gone mostly overlooked. Facebook’s auction-based system rewards ads that draw engagement from users by making them cheaper, serving them to more users for less money. But the mechanics that apply to commercial ads apply to political ones as well. Facebook has created a powerful system that dynamically, and unpredictably, changes the prices of political ads. The system also encourages polarization by incentivizing ads that users are predisposed to agree with.
Unless Facebook makes its internal data public, it’s impossible to say which ads reach which audiences, or how much candidates spend to reach them. After the 2016 presidential election, a senior Facebook employee said that Trump’s cost of reaching voters was substantially lower than Clinton’s, according to communications reviewed by The Verge. Trump was able to reach a larger audience than Clinton for less money, the employee said, illustrating the power of mastering Facebook’s ad platform. At a time when the company’s advertising business is under increasing scrutiny, Facebook’s platform dynamics could represent a new avenue for regulators to investigate.
Facebook disputed the premise of my story, saying that polarizing ads — by their nature — alienated large swathes of the population, making people less likely to share them in large numbers. But in a new story today in the Wall Street Journal, Georgia Wells and Deepa Seetharaman pick up the thread — and political advertisers tell them edgy ads outperform more straightforward ones.
Ahead of the 2016 election, former Democratic strategist Melissa Ryan tested a range of online campaign ads including “pretty and ugly, nice and incendiary,” she said.
“Ugly and incendiary won every time,” including on Facebook, said Ms. Ryan, now an editor of the weekly newsletter Ctrl Alt Right Delete, which analyzes the alt-right movement.
As I wrote last year, this isn’t true in every case. The Journal identifies other factors that influence the reach of an advertisement, including the size of the advertiser’s budget and their targeting criteria.
But they also talk to campaigns who found just what I did: that it pays to be polarizing.
Those changes aren’t slowing down Omar Navarro, a 29-year-old Republican candidate running against Maxine Waters in California’s 43rd congressional district. Mr. Navarro, who said he previously worked in social-media marketing for five years, said that while positive messages can do well on Facebook, edgy and extreme ads do better. “People tend to gravitate toward something that’s provocative,” he said.
One Facebook ad campaign urged users to like Mr. Navarro’s page with the message, “Had enough? Help me KICK self-serving Maxine Waters out of office!” The ad, which helped Mr. Navarro gain about 20,000 new followers, depicts Ms. Waters in black and white tones, while Mr. Navarro is in color.
“She’s painted in the dark, and I’m in the light,” he said. “She’s evil, and I represent good.” 
When I wrote my story, Facebook hadn’t yet created its public archive of political ads. Not only does the archive display the ad’s content, it displays its reach as well. While what counts as “edgy” will always be somewhat subjective, academics and journalists can now make more quantitative judgments about what kinds of ads perform well on Facebook.
Perhaps, as Facebook says, polarizing ads reach fewer people because more users are likely to hide the ads when they see them. Or perhaps, as the campaigns interviewed here suggest, polarizing ads help candidates build a large following. We now have publicly available that should help us sort fact from fiction. The next time someone tackles this subject, the answer should be much more definitive.

Democracy
Banned From Facebook, Myanmar’s Top General Finds Russian Refuge
Alphabet’s Chairman on Government, China and Fake News
Combating Foreign Influence
An update on the FireEye report and Reddit : announcements
Strikethrough is an excellent series of video essays about our current media moment from Vox’s Carlos Maza. Don’t miss his latest piece, which examines “firehosing” — the tendency of autocrats to tell as many lies as possible, for reasons that may surprise you. A provocative weekend watch:
Why obvious lies make great propaganda
Elsewhere
Twitter rival Mastodon isn’t safe from online mobs either
What Happens When Facebook Mistakenly Blocks Local News Stories
Meet The “Teacher Instagrammers” Who Moonlight As Influencers To Make Ends Meet
Apple blocks its gay pride watch face in Russia
Launches
This Week in Elon: When Elon tweets, no one can ignore it
YouTube may soon let you donate directly to fundraisers
Takes
Free Speech Is Not the Same As Free Reach
Here’s the Conversation We Really Need to Have About Bias at Google
Trump’s attacks on Google, Facebook, and Twitter aren’t about Big Tech.
And finally ...
Sword & Sworcery's Switch Port Won't Support Twitter Because It's A 'Vat Of Toxic Waste'
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and extremist political ads: casey@theverge.com.
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