Facebook was working hard to win over political campaigns in the run up to the 2016 election. The company sponsored debates, set up lounges for delegates at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, and aggressively courted political advertisers, even going so far as to embed staff with then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign. “Facebook really is the new town hall,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg boasted to investors just days before that election.

Four years later, in an effort to show they’d learned from their mistakes in 2016, the company’s leaders worked just as hard to position Facebook as a defender of democracy. The company loudly announced plans to register 4 million voters in what they called the “largest voting information effort in U.S. history” and undertook an unprecedented academic study to analyze the platform’s impact on the election. Zuckerberg himself shelled out more than $400 million to help local officials get the equipment they needed to pull off an election in a pandemic.

Now, with the 2024 election around the corner, Meta, as the company is now known, is working just as hard—to stay out of politics altogether. 

Case in point: Earlier this month, Meta announced that it would stop recommending political content on Instagram and Threads, which it owns, requiring users to instead explicitly direct the platforms’ algorithms to feed them political content if they want it. The announcement was just the latest in a slew of changes Meta has made since the aftermath of the 2020 election in an effort to, as Zuckerberg put it following the Capitol riot in early 2021, “turn down the temperature” on political speech across the company’s platforms. “Politics has kind of had a way of creeping into everything,” Zuckerberg said during an earnings call just weeks after the riot, which had been fueled in part by Facebook. “The feedback that we see from our community is that people don’t want that in their experience.” 

Since then, the company has rushed to dismantle its legacy as “the new town hall” by preventing political Facebook Groups from appearing in recommendations, reducing political content in Facebook News Feed, and preventing advertisers from targeting users based on “sensitive” categories, including their political beliefs or social causes they care about. That’s in addition to changes that have been out of Meta’s control, but which have also made it tougher for political campaigns to reach voters, including Apple’s privacy changes that prevent Meta and other companies from tracking iPhone users across apps.

“The days of 2016 were peak politics and Facebook. We’re on the back slope of that,” says Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and vice president of the firm GP3 Tech. “That doesn’t mean we’re abandoning Facebook. We’re just trying to figure out: How do we use it?”

It’s not hard to see where Meta’s leadership is coming from. The company has been blamed for everything from foreign manipulation to rising extremism and genocide. Meta has always insisted that politics represents a small portion of what people see on its platforms, which serve more than 3 billion users. It stands to reason that Zuckerberg and other company executives would rather cut their losses. And yet, that’s left something of a vacuum behind for political campaigns and organizations trying to reach voters online: Even as Meta is relinquishing the role it once pushed hard to play in presidential politics, so far, no other platform seems to have taken its place. 

In a statement, Meta spokesperson Dani Lever says the company has been refining its approach “based on what people told us they wanted.” That includes through surveys the company has conducted with Facebook users. “While only a small percentage of content on our platforms is political, we remain committed to helping people find reliable information about voting and elections, and to providing campaigns of all sizes the tools they need to reach their audiences,” Lever says. 

There’s clearly an argument to be made that Meta made the right call. Even when it was making grand overtures to political campaigns, it hardly led to a more healthy and functional political environment. As Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz pointed out on Threads, in some ways, Meta is only doing exactly what its critics always wanted the company to do, which is reduce its influence on politics. 

Kyle Tharp, author of the left-leaning newsletter FWIW, which focuses on digital trends in elections, sees some truth in that. And yet, he also points out that this move by Meta is, in some ways, only proving the company’s critics right by highlighting how much influence the company has had over our political discourse all along. “For a long time, Facebook denied that they had that power and said they’re just showing us users what they wanted,” Tharp says. “Now it’s like, ‘Oh, no. You literally just turn down the dial.’” 

Political pages that dominated Facebook in 2020—like, for instance, Occupy Democrats on the left and Ben Shapiro’s page on the right—have seen interactions including likes, comments, and shares decline precipitously since 2022, according to CrowdTangle data. The same is true even for leading political figures—including former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden—as well as top newsrooms like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. This reflects both the platforms’ efforts to limit political content, as well as an overall years-long decline in the reach of organic content, Tharp says.

“It used to be the case years ago on Facebook that if you had 100,000 followers, and you shared a link organically, many of those people would see it,” Tharp says. “Now, it’s really hard to receive organic engagement on political stuff.”

That leaves political campaigns and groups more reliant on paid advertising to get their messages out. But reaching key audiences with political ads is only getting more expensive thanks to Apple’s privacy changes and the way Meta has limited political targeting, says Tatenda Musapatike, a former Facebook employee and CEO of Voter Formation Project, a non-profit focused on turning out voters of color. “The targeting has become more inefficient. It’s harder to get direct responses, meaning donations,” she says. “You need to invest more to get more.”

In theory at least, that would seem to benefit Meta. And yet, there are early signs that political advertisers may be investing less in Facebook and Instagram ads this election than they have in past cycles. Andrew Arenge, director of operations for Penn’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, has amassed a database of daily spending on Facebook political ads, dating back to 2020. It shows that while Meta still makes more than $1 million a day on political ads, so far this year, spending on those ads has looked more like it did in 2022—a midterm election—than during the presidential election cycle in 2020. In fact, on any given day this month, Facebook made about one third as much money on political ads as it did on the same day in 2020. 

Some of that has to do with there being some big spenders in the 2020 Democratic primary, most notably former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. And yet, even removing Bloomberg from the picture, Arenge says, “There’s a significant gap there.” Republican candidates in particular appear to be pulling back from the platform. Arenge found that, in January of this year, when the Republican presidential primary was at its peak, campaigns linking to the Republican fundraising platform WinRed spent 12 times less money on political Facebook and Instagram ads than campaigns linking to the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue.

It’s unclear what exactly is driving that change, but it’s certainly not that some major alternative to Meta’s platforms has emerged. Even on Google, in the last 90 days, the Biden campaign spent about half of what it spent on Meta’s political ads during that same time period. Meanwhile, the social media landscape has grown more fragmented than ever, a trend Wilson, the Republican digital strategist, refers to as “enemy number one” for campaigns, given the way it’s divided potential audiences. The fact is: Facebook remains the platform with the biggest critical mass of voters, and yet, it’s also become a far less hospitable place to anyone trying to reach those voters. 

Meta, for one, says it will continue to work with state and local election officials to send information to voters through its Voting Alerts feature and that the platform has already delivered registration reminders to voters in all 50 states. 

Still, Wilson worries about how all of these changes will impact unlikely voters who don’t watch TV and who mostly get their news from social media. “Campaigns can’t get to them, can’t remind them to go vote, can’t tell them what the election is about or who the candidates are,” he says. “What does that say about us as a country where it’s the hyper-engaged partisans who are the ones who are the most reliable to turn up and vote?”

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