Social media ad ban hampers Georgia Senate runoff efforts

Aimed at postelection disinformation, ban affects fundraising and outreach in races that could decide chamber control

Democrat Raphael Warnock faces appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a Jan. 5 special election runoff in Georgia.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democrat Raphael Warnock faces appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in a Jan. 5 special election runoff in Georgia. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 10, 2020 at 5:43pm

Postelection bans on political advertising on Google and Facebook are unintentionally sapping momentum from campaigns in two Georgia runoffs that could determine the Senate majority, political strategists on both sides of the aisle said Tuesday. 

The bans, meant to curb disinformation for an unspecified amount of time after polls closed on Nov. 3, have blocked Georgia candidates and their supporters from a crucial avenue to raise money and energize supporters just as they are attracting national attention and gearing up for a two-month sprint to the Jan. 5 election. 

“With a critical election in less than two months and absentee ballots going out in weeks, this ban cannot stand,” said Terrence Clark, a spokesman for Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock who faces Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler in a special election runoff. “Facebook and Google must address the organic disinformation on their platforms and allow campaigns to fight voter suppression by informing voters how to register to vote, cast their ballots and ensure their votes are counted.” 

The bans were announced in the final weeks of general election campaigns that were winding down and preparing for a tense and potentially disruptive wait for results as election officials counted an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots. 

‘Thumbs on scale of democracy’

At the time, the possibility that both Georgia Senate races — a regularly scheduled contest and a special election — would head to runoffs with the chamber’s balance of power at stake seemed like the stuff of dreams. But as reality set in the week after the election, neither Big Tech company has released updates to their policies, even as strategists and advertising experts from both sides of the aisle have begun sounding alarms. 

“At the end of the day, the technology platforms like Facebook and Google are putting their thumbs on the scale of democracy,” said Mark Jablonowski, the managing partner at DSPolitical, a digital ad firm that works with Democrats. The bans are “PR” moves and a “distraction” from the real work tech companies need to do to identify and combat rampant disinformation that has spread through their platforms and threatens the democratic process, Jablonowski said. 

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Google and Facebook representatives did not respond to requests for comment. 

While the policies apply to every campaign, Democrats contend they are particularly onerous for the Democratic challengers, Warnock and documentary film production company CEO Jon Ossoff, who, the party says, stand to gain from national excitement over President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in their bids against Loeffler and GOP Sen. David Perdue, respectively.

They also point out that Democrats have typically relied more on the small-dollar donations generated through digital ads than Republicans, and incumbents generally enjoy an advantage in runoff elections. 

High-leverage moment lost?

Democrats in Georgia are rolling out massive get-out-the-vote drives across the state to combat the low turnout that has plagued the party in past runoff elections, another operation that could be hampered by restrictions on communication with voters. Those voters tend to be more diverse and harder to reach through traditional methods than the frequent voters targeted by Republican campaigns.

“There is no replacing missed high-leverage moments in online fundraising,” tweeted Tim Tagaris, who served as digital fundraising director for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “And ads are a HUGE part of that. Every day @Facebook and @Google wait to turn ads back on they cost @ReverendWarnock a huge number of donations AND volunteers. A big gift to self-funding Kelly Loeffler.”

Loeffler, a businesswoman, has given her campaign more than $20 million in loans, accounting for the vast majority of the $28 million that she raised through mid-October, according to Federal Election Commission filings. In the other race, Ossoff loaned himself $450,000 of the $33 million he raised. Warnock, the pastor of an Atlanta church, and Perdue had not contributed their own money to their campaigns. 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised concerns about this issue after the ad policy was announced in October, arguing the companies should reveal what benchmarks need to be reached before the ban is lifted.

“Voters, particularly people of color, rely on these platforms to learn about participating in our civic process, so these companies have a responsibility to make transparent and timely decisions,” a DSCC official said Tuesday.

But Republicans said they shared the concern and expressed frustration about the lack of public response from the tech companies. 

“The balance of power in the Senate is coming down to Georgia, and the tech companies are severely limiting efforts to reach voters for fundraising, voter ID, persuasion, and [get-out-the-vote],” one Republican strategist said. 

“Everyone is at the whims of these two tech giants,” said another.

Unofficial results show that Democrats would have at least 48 seats in the Senate next year. In addition to the two Georgia seats, Senate races in Alaska and North Carolina had not been called by The Associated Press as of 5 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, although Democrat Cal Cunningham had conceded to North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis earlier in the day.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.