Nonprofits and community groups across North Carolina had a communications lifeline restored last week when Facebook announced it was lifting its ban on political advertising, a ban put in place after the events of Jan. 6. Facebook’s overly broad definition of “political advertising” had swept up non-political groups in its wake, leaving average Americans without access to a key discussion forum.
At a time when Big Tech is getting hammered, Facebook’s decision deserves a thumbs-up. Now the public will again be able to reach audiences to speak about critical issues. Reaching out to one another is vital, particularly now, when the stakes are high. Gov. Roy Cooper’s pandemic orders have left businesses like gyms and bars unable to fully reopen and parents desperately trying to juggle jobs and their children’s schooling. As Americans are still practicing social distancing, online speech has become more critical than ever.
Many people are skeptical of paid ads as a way to speak to the community, but for those without sizable followings, digital ads are a lifeline. Online ads reach a large audience without extensive technical know-how and funding. For just a few dollars, your message is put in front of the very people with whom it will resonate. Civic engagement is a critical component of a free society. Educating audiences about the issues that impact them is vital.
The ability to advertise online is increasingly essential to political campaigns, especially those of less well-funded challengers, but political campaigns have access to various other mediums. For them the ban was an annoyance but not a speech-killer. Television ads and mailers are still routinely used by these campaigns to share messages. Such tools are expensive and out of the question for most everyday North Carolinians and nonprofits looking to raise awareness on issues without the infrastructure and funding of political campaigns.
As a result, digital advertising has become fundamental for nonprofit and issue groups engaging in the vital work of educating the public on pressing issues in communities. Suppose you want to organize a group to speak to a city council about supporting small businesses or lockdown restrictions. In that case, online ads are typically the best method to reach your audience. If you want to make your voice heard at the State Capitol about student education, online advertising is an effective vehicle for reaching families in the same situation.
What made Facebook’s ban particularly harmful is that Facebook has a remarkably broad definition of what qualifies as political speech. Facebook doesn’t differentiate between ads in support or opposition of political candidates and ads about critical issues like taxes, free speech, or even opposing human trafficking. That fact caused nonprofits in North Carolina and around the nation to struggle to reach their audience. It was a form of silencing speech.
The irony of Facebook’s ban is that the company has stated its mission is to connect people to the information and people important to them. Yet, the ad bans contradicted these goals at every turn. While Facebook’s reasoning for banning ads may have been an attempt to ratchet down the polarized political climate, it did nothing of the sort. Instead, it let the loudest voices with the greatest followings continue to drown out those who wanted to engage with issues in their local communities.
Banning political ads won’t fix our political discourse any more than preventing the placement of yard signs. But while these bans were in place, they ensured that speech on the issues that matter to people in their communities was more challenging to hear.
Facebook made the right move.
Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) represents the 97th State House District in the North Carolina General Assembly and serves as co-chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Information Technology. Donald Bryson is president of the John Locke Foundation, a public policy organization based in Raleigh.