Barrett: Buying into election interference with Facebook ads furthers media distrust

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For all the grilling of Facebook by politicians over election interference since the 2016 U.S. election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, you’d think they’d be a little less apt to put advertising dollars into the company and instead put their faith in more traditional mediums.

Since the start of the election, I’ve had no less than four different political candidates – three of which will not be on my ballot Oct. 21 – take over my Facebook feed with a brand new, paid ad every single day.

I understand many campaigns are tight with how they use their funds, and Facebook is seen as being cheaper. However, it says something when a post on one such ad or boosted post actually had our local incumbent MP almost seem to boast about how they were saving money by running a Facebook ad campaign rather than using traditional advertising.

“The money we spend on social media is a lot less than many other forms of advertising would cost. This allows us to focus more resources on spreading positive information…,” said a post written on the Sept. 30 ad by Blaine Calkins (or his campaign’s social media guru), in response to a voter asking why money was being spent on social media ads.

Buying oil from Saudi Arabia is cheaper – it doesn’t make it the ethical or right thing to do. The same logic applies here – there are reasons why traditional ads are more expensive, or worth the additional dollars.

For one, local news outlets – the traditional kind – put money back into the communities they are in (think of the premise behind the “shop local” movement). At the Lacombe Globe, we’ve put money back in the community since 1901. We have a rink board at the Gary Moe Auto Group Sportsplex, and recently were a sponsor of the Lacombe Culture and Harvest Festival. Our staff, from carriers to sales and the newsroom spend our hard-earned monies in the community. Facebook does not.

Another reason is there’s value in trust – and as per News Media Canada, newspapers are still the most trusted form of advertising from Millennials to Baby Boomers. Why? Well, companies like Facebook certainly haven’t done a lot to instill confidence in readers.

Keep in mind that in June 2018, Calkins introduced Bill C-406, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (foreign contributions) that would prohibit foreign contributions to third parties for election advertising purposes. He described the bill, which would be defeated, as a way to combat improper foreign influence in our elections, such as donations made by the Tides Foundation.

There are other organizations, however, that have been involved in election interference, and chief among them is Facebook – the very company a lot of election advertising dollars are going to.

To be fair, laws have been strengthened to limit the spread of “fake news” and its influence over voters in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook’s Canadian head of public policy Kenneth Chan told CTV Monday the volume of such stories is comparatively small to that of the 2016 U.S. election, due to a “proactive” approach  in detecting fake accounts. In the first quarter of 2019, they removed more than two billion fake accounts.

With smarter laws, however, come new, smarter schemes to influence. While “fake news” stories are being limited, cyber security experts say one method to influence elections may be targeting niche groups with Facebook ads, rather than viral stories.

And our politicians and prospective leaders are literally buying into it, because, hey – it’s cheaper.

I’m not against using social media advertising in its entirety, but it should be used as a supplement – not a replacement of traditional advertising. Using it too often can actually drive people away rather than attract them – and I can say I’ve blocked the three non-local candidates to stop getting hit with election ads every time I go to post to the Lacombe Globe’s Facebook page.

It should also make sense, and for someone who put forward a bill relating to foreign election interference, in a party that has criticized the Liberals for social media spending and driving investment out of the country, it’s hypocritical to spend money in a way that perpetuates the very problems they’re supposedly concerned about.

Spending money with Facebook, rather than traditional advertising, not only affects ad revenue, but credibility of local news, too. I mean, how bad is it when leaders choose a 40-day ad campaign with foreign election interference enablers rather than local outlets? What does that say about those outlets when leaders don’t see worth in advertising with them?

As a result of the Liberals media bailout package, this election has seen more open distrust of the media than ever before. Regardless of whether an outlet has accepted funds or not, journalistic integrity has been compromised and it shows in how the public is quick to claim members have either been bought off by the Liberals, or are butt hurt they’re not getting their piece of the bailout pie. I’m not in favour of the media bailout for that reason.

What newspapers need isn’t government handouts, but people to recognize the value of not just local news, but the advertising they offer, which has been a struggle, particularly on the online front. What newspapers need is leaders to lead by example and support their local outlets through advertising, and not buy into our demise by choosing Facebook instead.