A Facebook Ban on Political Ads Would Be a Major Blow to the Left. Just Look at AOC’s Campaign.

AOC fueled her rise, and the rise of a movement, by deftly combining on-the-ground organizing with sophisticated targeting on Facebook.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, adjusts her glasses while questioning Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., not pictured, during a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Zuckerberg struggled to convince Congress of the merits of the company's plans for a cryptocurrency in light of all the other challenges the company has failed to solve. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23, 2019. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On June 26, 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off an upset victory against incumbent Joe Crowley that would, in the matter of a few months, help reshape the Democratic Party. Crowley, in line to be speaker of the House, instead became a lobbyist, and Ocasio-Cortez became the face of an insurgent Democratic left, joined by three freshmen colleagues who came to be known as the Squad

A week after her November election, she joined with activists from the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats to occupy the office of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, putting the Green New Deal on the political map, and reorienting the public conversation about climate change. 

Yet as insurgent candidates are within striking distance of realigning Democratic Party politics, Democrats — including Ocasio-Cortez — are pressuring Silicon Valley to cut off the very route that they have taken to power by banning political advertising on social media. Last week, progressives cheered when Twitter announced a ban on political ads, and Google is reportedly considering moving in that direction as well.

Ocasio-Cortez was quick to endorse the move, and progressives largely cheered it. She added that she believed the ban should extend to any social media company unwilling to take responsibility for fact-checking:

By the end of Ocasio-Cortez’s thread, she seemed to be leaving some wiggle room in her position, noting she runs social media ads herself, and only wants companies to block “outright disinformation: wrong vote records, etc.”

Facebook has been under pressure since the election of Donald Trump, with Democrats attacking the company for not stopping foreign-funded misinformation from circulating widely. Democratic leaders recently went after Facebook again when it refused to take down an ad from Trump that included false claims; Elizabeth Warren responded by running an explicitly false ad on the platform. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the House Financial Services Committee on October 23, Ocasio-Cortez hammered him on the scandal.

Yet her note about her own use of ads is something of an understatement. Though it hasn’t been widely explored, the campaign of Ocasio-Cortez fueled her rise, and the rise of a movement, by deftly combining on-the-ground organizing with sophisticated targeting on Facebook — the type of targeting that she has called for Facebook to ban if it will not commit to blocking ads that contain lies.

Spending $82,000 targeting voters on Facebook may sound like a lot, but by comparison, Crowley spent just as much on polling.

From the start of Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent campaign until the primary, she spent roughly half the $164,000 she had raised on Facebook ads, in addition to cash spent on social advertising by political firms working with her campaign. Though Crowley, who was the boss of the local Democratic Party, spent more than $3 million on the campaign, she was able to reach new voters by using Facebook to build and complement her field operations. Spending $82,000 targeting voters on Facebook may sound like a lot, but by comparison, Crowley spent just as much — $82,500, according to his FEC report — on polling. (His polls showed him well ahead.) 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, in his tweets announcing the ban, acknowledged it could entrench those currently in power, making it more difficult for outsiders to mount successful challenges. “Some might argue our actions today could favor incumbents. But we have witnessed many social movements reach massive scale without any political advertising. I trust this will only grow,” he said, perhaps less than reassuringly.

Dorsey’s team has since codified the ban, making it clear that issue advertising is also barred. But corporate advertising can continue. The day the ban was announced, Michael Whitney, who does digital fundraising for the Bernie Sanders campaign and previously worked at The Intercept, predicted (on Twitter) that we’d soon be in a world where climate groups were banned from advertising, but oil companies were free to promote the nonsense that oil companies are, in fact, respectful climate stewards. 

It took just days to pan out.

The problem with asking Facebook to censor ads, critics argue, is that it puts too much power in the hands of those in a privileged position to determine what is true and what is false. Facebook, in its halting efforts at fact-checking, has aligned with an independent organization that allows the right-wing Daily Caller, itself a jumble of misinformation and propaganda, to serve as a fact checker. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, meanwhile, routinely declares obviously true things said by progressive politicians, including Ocasio-Cortez, to be false.

Zuckerberg has steadfastly refused to adopt a ban so far, but the pressure is building. Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and chair of the Democratic National Committee, writing in the Guardian, put the debate over political ads in apocalyptic terms, savaging the company for “shirking its responsibility to filter out lies.”

As long as it continues to abdicate responsibility for content on its platform, Facebook is a very real threat to civic society,” he warned, adding that consumers who continue to use the platform “add another nail to the coffin lid of democracy.”

In the Guardian, Howard Dean glosses over the other political tendency that has learned how to use Facebook effectively: the populist left.

Dean’s argument focuses on the populist right’s ability to manipulate the platform for political advantage, whether to push Brexit over the top or elect Trump president. But Dean himself should know that the right isn’t alone in its ability to use new technologies to organize disaffected voters. Before Dean’s current incarnation as a corporate influence peddler, his own 2004 insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination for president pioneered the use of social media — at the time, MeetUp.com and email — to challenge entrenched power. In the Guardian, he glosses over the other political tendency that has learned how to use Facebook effectively: the populist left.

Ocasio-Cortez’s race, for all that it did to reshape American politics, is terribly misunderstood by progressives: Paid social media advertising was absolutely critical to her victory, and it allowed her to build a small-dollar fundraising mechanism that enables her to focus on legislating more than fundraising. It’s worth understanding how critical a role Facebook played in her campaign — and what a ban on political advertising could mean for other insurgent candidates. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s filings with the Federal Election Commission tell the narrative of how her campaign unfolded. She spent virtually nothing on ads on Twitter, and the platform is relatively small enough that if the Silicon Valley ban on political ads stopped at Twitter, the world would go on for insurgent candidates. Indeed, Twitter CFO Ned Segal said that the company made less than $3 million from political ads during the 2018 midterm elections, a drop in the bucket. That’s not the case for Facebook, however. According to estimates by the nonprofit Tech for Campaigns, out of $623 million spent on digital advertising for the 2018 cycle, $284 million of that was spent on Facebook. (That’s on $55 billion in total revenue.)

The first four-digit expenses Ocasio-Cortez reported in 2017 were directed to Brand New Congress LLC, the legal vehicle of the organization that first backed her run and which she was legally required to compensate for consulting. BNC, which had largely acquired its email list of supporters through digital ads placed on Facebook, helped Ocasio-Cortez by designing a website, building out a field program, and setting up software for phone and text banking. Importantly, much of what BNC did early on included running targeted ads on Facebook to grow her list of supporters and identify volunteers and donors. Later, as BNC split into two groups, the second being called Justice Democrats, JD was able to map its email list against Facebook data to find like-minded people who’d be interested in supporting Ocasio-Cortez, if only they could learn about her.

In an innovative strategy developed by the Jess King congressional campaign in Pennsylvania, and imported to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, JD was able to match potential supporters on social media with the voter rolls and hit them with targeted ads. Canvassers — both paid and volunteer — would then knock on their doors for an in-person conversation. Having already seen ads about her, they were primed for the conversation — a sophisticated blend of digital and in-person organizing that Ocasio-Cortez’s position would now have banned. 

Between the start of her campaign in early 2017 and the primary in June 2018, according to FEC records, Ocasio-Cortez spent $164,000, while Crowley spent millions of dollars, blanketing television with ads, pumping robocalls into homes, going up on the radio, and filling mailboxes with glossy flyers. 

On Facebook advertising alone, Ocasio-Cortez spent $82,000 — a full half of her total. And that’s only what’s listed as Facebook advertising. The consulting fees paid to JD and BNC went significantly to social media ads. 

The inherent advantage populist candidates have on social media is that their message is popular, but it loses because it is shut out of the mainstream discourse.

None of this is to say that Facebook ads alone elected Ocasio-Cortez. If her message didn’t resonate with voters, Facebook users would have scrolled right past them. That, however, is the inherent advantage populist candidates have on social media: Their message is popular, but it loses because it is shut out of the mainstream discourse. 

The cost of obtaining the email address of a new supporter varies widely by politician, but in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, it pays dividends, not just for herself, but for other insurgent candidates. It’s not uncommon for a campaign with significant energy behind it to pay $1 for the name and email address of a new supporter, and then have supporters turn around and donate, on average, $1.50 or more to the campaign. It’s a cycle that leads to an ever-growing list, as well as fundraising at a scale large enough to compete with big money. It works best for populist candidates who can go beyond the well of Democratic donors accustomed to giving in small amounts. When the DNC forced presidential candidates to amass a certain number of small donors to make the debate stage, candidates were eventually forced to spend $30 or $40 for every $1 donation they could acquire, as the well ran dry. It’s hard to get people to give to a candidate without a clear message or rationale for their candidacy, which gives an advantage on Facebook to insurgents like AOC.

That list that she is building is valuable in itself, as she can send an email asking her supporters to donate to other candidates, such as Tiffany Cabán, whom she endorsed for Queens district attorney. What Ocasio-Cortez is doing is building an alternative source of financing for the insurgent movement, one that doesn’t require getting on the phone for hours a day calling rich people. That’s why, after the primary, her campaign spent another $457,500 on Facebook advertising over the second half of 2018, capitalizing wisely on her rise in popularity and fame. By then, she had brought in the progressive firm Middle Seat, which specializes in online fundraising, paying them $34,000 in 2018. That fundraising capacity allows her, in Congress, to focus on movement organizing and her job of legislating and oversight. 

Supporters of Twitter’s ban on political ads argue that a good candidate can rely on “organic” reach. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” said Dorsey, echoing the argument. That may be fine for Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, where she boasts more than 5 million followers, but Facebook keeps a tight hold on its algorithmic access to those who have liked or followed your page. It doesn’t matter how big your page is; if Facebook decides your post will only reach 1,000 people organically, that’s all it will reach. There’s no such thing as organic on a private platform run by an opaque algorithm that is constantly adjusted. 

For establishment Democrats, calling for the ban is a no-brainer. They can whack both the right and the left at the same time, comfortable that they will still be able to raise ample money from corporate and wealthy donors. Indeed, without the threat of a scrappy campaign deploying a sophisticated targeting strategy to find disaffected voters, incumbents can breathe much easier. 

Without the threat of a scrappy campaign deploying a sophisticated targeting strategy to find disaffected voters, incumbents can breathe much easier.

In announcing her initial support for the ban, Ocasio-Cortez left open the possibility she could back off if social media companies simply did the bare minimum on “outright disinformation.” That’s a slippery concept, but there may be possibilities there. “I say this [about the ban] as a candidate that runs digital ads & believe they can be productive + useful *IF* used responsibly,” she noted in her Twitter thread. “People say that tech companies can’t fact check, but basic fact checking isn’t hard. We‘re talking abt blocking outright disinformation: wrong vote records, etc.”

Supporters of the ban have also argued that as long as a candidate has a dynamic message and is a strong organizer, all they need is people, not money. The theme of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign after all was “They’ve got money, we’ve got people.” But it costs money — not millions, but some — to find those people. After her two big payments to BNC in 2017, Ocasio-Cortez had to cut a check for $5,850 to the New York State Democratic Party for access to the voter file — without which, she could not find voters. For someone not independently wealthy, that alone is a serious impediment, but thanks to the online fundraising she’d been able to eke out by August 2017, she was able to afford it. 

Another major expense came in May 2018, and ate up most of what she had in her account at the time — $4,737.50 to Means of Production, a socialist video production company that produced a viral campaign ad. Off of that, she raised more than $100,000, but, again, used digital ads to capitalize on the heat of the moment. 

So far in 2019, Ocasio-Cortez has raised $3.4 million for her campaign, making her the chamber’s third-best fundraiser, trailing Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, at $4.4 million, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at $3.7 million. Schiff is an example of how Facebook can benefit centrist candidates as well if they can tap into a political zeitgeist; every time Trump attacks Schiff, he runs ads on Facebook and rakes in resistance money. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s haul is on top of what she raised for allies in the House or candidates she’s endorsed, and it’s the kind of number that puts fear into the heart of the Democratic establishment, worried that a fundraising model that relies on small donors and regular people may actually be able to compete with big money. To do that, she has already spent more than $823,00 on Facebook advertising in 2019 alone, with a full quarter of reporting left to go, meaning the annual number will easily top $1,000,000. She has spent just over $1.8 million this year, meaning nearly half of her total spending has been directly on Facebook ads. (Schiff’s campaign doesn’t work directly with Facebook much, relying on consultants to place the buys instead, but his FEC forms list more than $960,000 spent on “digital media acquisition” — mostly Facebook — and digital consulting.) 

Ocasio-Cortez, in 2019, spent an additional $300,000 so far with the firm Middle Seat, which does digital fundraising and relies heavily on Facebook. Justice Democrats, meanwhile, has spent more than $200,000 on Middle Seat in 2019.

Put simply, without targeted ads, Ocasio-Cortez, in the short-term, wouldn’t be able to raise money and grow the insurgent movement at anything like her current scale and pace. And as the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear, massive scale and rapid pace in the short-term are what’s needed to stave off catastrophic climate change. The question of whether to ban Facebook ads comes down to a weighing of risk. For those who believe that misinformation from rising fascist movements represents the greatest threat, a ban that also hurts an insurgent left might be the most prudent course. But in a world where the status quo has civilization on a collision course with oblivion, discarding the most effective organizing tool progressives have available to them represents an extraordinary gamble.

The next Ocasio-Cortez, if Facebook does ban targeted political ads, will have to go back to the drawing board — which means there would likely be no next Ocasio-Cortez. That, of course, would be just fine with Mark Zuckerberg. 

That the decision of one unelected man could have that much political impact — such that politicians are lobbying him, rather than the other way around — is all the evidence needed that he has too much power, and that his company needs to be broken up and regulated like the utility it is. To build the power to make that move, though, the left needs Facebook ads to get there. 

Join The Conversation