Facebook has long downplayed the importance of political advertising within its overall revenue picture.
But when the context is multi-billions of dollars, even a small percentage of a total is a large sum by most standards.
In part because rival tech platforms have significantly limited or banned political ads to help protect the integrity of the Presidential election, Facebook pulled in about $164 million in ads from political campaigns and politicians in this year’s third quarter, accounting for about 3% of its estimated total U.S. revenue in the period, according to data from Facebook’s ad library and the Center for Responsive Politics, reports NBC News.
Specifically, NBC reports that the Trump campaign spent $48.7 million, and Joe Biden’s campaign spent $45.4 million, on Facebook ads during Q3.
The report also lists large sums spent on Facebook in Q3 by both sides around the Senate race in South Carolina, by Republican challengers for House seats in heavily Democratic districts, and by outside groups on both sides.
Facebook, which is scheduled to report Q3 results on October 29, declined to comment on the story or its estimates/analysis of Facebook advertising revenue.
In October 2019, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimated that political ads run directly by politicians (not including third-party “issue” and PAC ads) would generate 0.5% of Facebook’s total revenue (not just U.S. revenue) in 2020. That would have meant that Facebook’s political ad revenue for the entire year 2020 would have amounted to roughly $300 to $400 million, noted Techcrunch at the time.
Facebook’s apparent political-ads bonanza of course reflects its massive reach and targeting capabilities, but also reflects its rivals’ actions, according to NBC, whose sources on both the Democratic and Republican sides say that Facebook has pretty much become the only game in town.
“For better or worse — mostly worse — Facebook is the de facto place you go,” Nick Fitz, CEO of online donations site Momentum, which powers the anti-Trump “Defeat by Tweet” campaign, told the news site.
Both TikTok and Twitter completely banned political ads starting last fall, and Snapchat says it’s been fact-checking political ads since last November (even as Facebook refused to do so).
And Google, the biggest digital advertising power of all, late last year limited targeting capabilities by eliminating a function that allowed advertisers to upload their own third-party lists of voters to target — although political campaigns reportedly have found ways to get around that obstacle, and to use the targeting capabilities on less transparent sites that allow such practices.
Facebook, meanwhile, allows political advertisers to use the same kinds microtargeting capabilities used by corporate advertisers.
“We’ve built predictive models to score all voters in the key swing states based on their likelihood to be conservative, but hesitancy to vote for Trump,” Tim Miller, political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, told NBC News. “Facebook has the most robust suite of in-platform targeting options combined with the largest audience,” Miller added.
Meanwhile, Facebook, under intense scrutiny about both election and potential antitrust matters from members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and the Trump administration, as well as advocacy groups with varying agendas, has been in recent months -- and particularly recent weeks -- expanding its policies in relation to advertising and discourse about the election.
Early this week, the platform banned accounts and other formats relating to the QAnon conspiracy theory, and it has since announced that it will ban political advertising for a period after the polls close (as rival Google had already done). Facebook had previously announced that it would ban new political ads in the seven days leading up to Election Day.
Critics have charged that such moves amount to mostly PR efforts, given how late in the game they are being implemented. Militias and conspiracy groups like QAnon have been using the platform (and others) to organize since at least before the 2016 Presidential election.