Facebook’s latest test balloon has popped.
On Friday, Bloomberg reported that Facebook is considering a blackout of political ads in the “days” before the November 2020 election. That alarmed democratic campaign staff and experts, who warned that it could lead to voter suppression.
“Under this proposal, the President could use organic posts to suppress voting by mail (as he did today), but Democrats could not run ads encouraging people to return their mail ballots,” Rob Flaherty, the digital director for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, .
Political operatives think the report might be what’s known as a “test balloon” in the media and political worlds, which is when an organization leaks an idea it is “considering” to either garner positive press, or gauge reaction.
Facebook has come under fire for refusing to fact check political ads, and for not doing enough to counter misinformation in the lead up to the election. Floating the idea of a temporary, last-minute ad blackout could be one way to move the conversation forward.
However, Democrats say banning political ads — particularly in the crucial days before the election — is not the right way to address the platform’s many problems.
The final days before an election are an important time for campaigns to get their message out, particularly messages to get out the vote. Danielle Butterfield, who is the paid media director for progressive political organization Priorities the USA, explained that “a majority of voters aren’t paying attention to politics until the last possible second.” So the time period Facebook has hypothetically selected could be extremely consequential.
What’s more, much of that messaging, especially for Democrats, will center around efforts to get out the vote. As Trump has said himself, low turnout elections have a history of favoring Republicans, and Trump has already tried to undermine faith in the voting process. Democrats see paid advertisements as a crucial way to counter the sort of inflammatory misinformation about voting that spreads like wildfire on Facebook in order to get out the vote.
“We know that Republicans are going to try to make it seem like voting is inaccessible and hard, particularly in this pandemic,” Butterfield said. “Our job is going to be to get out there and show that that’s not the case and that voting is easy and accessible and still safe to do.”
Disabling ads would kneecap democrats’ ability to do that, she said, especially since going door to door is not as feasible in this pandemic.
The potential voter suppression that could arise from the Facebook policy makes the proposal all the more ludicrous as a pro-democracy measure coming from Facebook. To much fanfare, Facebook announced a massive get-out-the-vote effort in June and has specifically banned posts that constitute voter suppression. At the same time, Facebook defended its decision to keep up Trump’s post that could suppress voting.
“I really hope they don’t go through with this idea because it would be incredibly dangerous,” Butterfield said. “But I’ve learned to stop trusting that Facebook will do the right thing.”