Facebook strikes a blow against free speech

January 17, 2022   •  By Nathan Maxwell   •    •  

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner on January 17, 2022. 


Is activism taboo in the metaverse?

You’d be forgiven for thinking Facebook’s name change to Meta is a nod to its metastasizing censorship. From dubious fact-check labels to restricting what it calls “misinformation,” Facebook too often aims to throttle public discourse. Its newest strategy: remove cost-effective communication tools from campaigns and political advocacy groups.

Beginning Jan. 19, Facebook will no longer allow advertisers to identify users based on their interactions with content related to “health, race or ethnicity, political affiliation, religion, or sexual orientation.” This means that grassroots groups, nonprofit organizations, and political campaigns will have a harder time reaching the people who would want to hear from them.

Unsurprisingly, this action has received swift condemnation from major political interests, such as the four campaign arms of the Democratic Party. But political powerhouses have the least to fear. It’s the smaller groups that will hurt the most.

Large, established organizations can afford costly workarounds, such as storing and referencing their own data on voters to aid their messaging. If necessary, they also have the resources to build an online presence without precise ad targeting tools.

But new groups or those representing new causes must reach prospective supporters efficiently to survive. They can’t afford to spend vast resources advertising to audiences that are uninterested or opposed to their views. The ability to identify and reach out to those most likely to join or take action is how groups can generate enough support to continue after their initial funding runs dry.

The same is true of political campaigns. Powerful incumbents and celebrity candidates lose little from Facebook’s new policy, but political newcomers who lack their opponents’ name recognition and deep pockets will struggle to gain the momentum needed to build a competitive campaign. As cost-effective methods of reaching interested voters online dwindle, cash-strapped groups and candidates will find little recourse in the far more expensive world of TV and radio. And while newcomers search for any way to build their audience, news feeds will still be replete with content from big-name politicians and ads from deep-pocketed campaigns.

Ad targeting also helps prevent cookie-cutter campaigning. When campaigns know who they’re talking to, they can personalize the message, engage new voters on the issues they care about, and drive voter turnout. Similarly, when nonprofit organizations can reach the people most likely to support their cause, cash-strapped groups get a chance to thrive, new perspectives receive due attention, and voters can more easily connect to the movements they care about.

Without effective ad targeting options, reaching the right audience for your message can be like finding a needle in a haystack of Facebook’s nearly 2 billion daily active users. Instead, speakers may be incentivized to craft politically provocative messages to generate support. Moreover, with TV and radio ads simply being too expensive for many groups, quality internet advertising on platforms such as Facebook is a lifeline. It’s no wonder that social movements so routinely dominate the internet’s most popular spaces.

Activism online will soon cost far more but achieve far less. Facebook’s regression on ad “targeting” policy will further disadvantage the budding voices of grassroots groups, small nonprofit groups, and political underdogs. Preventing these speakers from reaching the audience that would most like to hear from them undermines the platform’s most valuable contribution to public discourse. What is the metaverse supposed to be if not the ultimate gathering place?

Nathan Maxwell

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