Facebook Touts Its Advertising Effectiveness All the Time—Until Russia Started Buying Ads

It's a new kind of case study for the platforms

Top attorneys for Facebook, Twitter and Google testified in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Tuesday afternoon. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

After financial markets close this afternoon, Facebook will likely crush earnings expectations for yet another straight quarter. Once the numbers are made public, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg will tell investors how impressive its advertising business has been, with its “people-based” approach to targeting users based on interests and actions both online and in real life.

If it goes anything like past quarters (and there’s no reason to think it won’t), Zuckerberg and Sandberg will tout plenty of real-life case studies about how brands like Tropicana, Ben & Jerry’s and many others have benefited from reaching people of every demographic. However, T=there is another type of case study in Congress, as the most powerful tech companies in the world—used to hyping the hope of online advertising around the world—are now dialing it back as they attempt to explain exactly what kind of a role their platforms played in Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. And while they’re not denying the influence, they’re trying their best to manage expectations.

They’re also trying to manage blame. Top attorneys from Facebook and its rivals Twitter and Google are testifying under oath this week about the reach and effectiveness of Russian-bought ads before, during and after the 2016 presidential election. On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism questioned the trio. This morning, they’re speaking with the Senate Intelligence Committee on the same topics, facing a second round of hard questioning about how their products work and how much impact they unwittingly had.

Facebook isn’t the only one. Last week, Google and Twitter both reported better-than-expected earnings—and both highlighted their products capabilities for reaching the right audience at the right time and having the right effect.

“They’re in a tough spot: on the one hand, they have a case study on the effectiveness of advertising on the platform,” said Kyle Bunch, managing director of social at R/GA Austin. “At the same time, that effectiveness may put them in a politically vulnerable position that could have a tangible effect on their business.”

Based on prepared statements and their answers to Congress’ questions, the tech companies are trying to downplay how much of a role their platforms might have played in swaying the election to Donald Trump. For example, in its own statement, Google—which this week disclosed officially for the first that Russian actors had bought ads on YouTube—said “Google’s products also don’t lend themselves to the kind of targeting or viral dissemination tools that these actors seem to prefer.”

Silicon Valley and the Beltway are getting to know each other on a much more intimate level as they grapple to both understand what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Last month, several top lawmakers introduced legislation to require the largest tech companies to disclose who buys ads on their platforms and who sees them. Lawmakers are learning how the largely unregulated ad-tech industry actually operates.

“I think you do enormous good, but your power sometimes scares me,” U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, told the platforms on Tuesday.

Kennedy isn’t alone. In fact, others expressed similar sentiment. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, asked Facebook’s attorney to promise they can find a way to avoid foreign interference in the future.

“My goal is for you to think through this stuff a little better,” Franken said.

“People can die,” said U.S. Sen. Patrick Lahey, D-Vermont, when talking about the implications around the world such as Myanmar, where The New York Times reported that misinformation and propaganda may be fueling violence against Rohingya Muslims.

While the numbers keep growing, there’s not any way yet to fully understand how effective those ads were. In prepared remarks, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said at least 126 million users in the U.S. saw content form the Russia-linked Internet Research Association, which bought ads to sway users on a variety of issues—that’s far more than the 10 million the company disclosed just a month ago.

“We want our ad tools to be used for political discourse, but we do not want our ad tool to be used to inflame and divide,” said Stretch during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing when asked about the role of politics on the platform.

In Facebook’s defense, it’s a lot easier to measure effectiveness when it’s clear what the goals are in the first place. According to Noah Mallin, managing partner at MEC North America, there aren’t enough details yet to draw conclusions. In a brand campaign, advertisers set up ways to measure indicators of success. But meddling with an election is new ground.

“I think you would have to talk to the people who planned these campaigns, in part,” he said. “We don’t know yet how much of this was aimed at, for instance suppressing or getting out votes which are tricky metrics to tie back to the role of a single or even multiple platforms.”

Conversely, the internet was set up to sell products, said Chris Nolan, founder of Spot-On, a cloud-based ad-buying service for politics and advocacy. While she’s not as convinced as some that Facebook swayed the election to the same degree as some might think, she said the internet is a “quasi-horrible, quasi-magical, quasi-wonderful thing that they want to use but bad stuff keeps happening.” That’s led to a lot of misunderstanding from the top levels of Congress to the campaigns for the smallest city’s mayor.

Nolan said she’s in favor of regulations to bring political ads in line with those bought and sold on traditional platforms like TV, newspapers and radio stations. However, she worries that ads aren’t always being reviewed in the right away.

“The web was not set up to sell ideas, it was set up to sell Coca-Cola and mattresses,” she said. “Machines don’t do well with perception change. Computers are binary, you’re either black or you’re white, you’re either on or you’re off. When we deal with political discourse, there are nuances, an those nuances can get lost in the process where someone can buy a political ad with nothing more than a web browser and a credit card.”

She added: “Hillary Clinton is not a can of Coke.”

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.