“Buying the Election, Mark Zuckerberg in bed with President Donald Trump” by Beverly & Pack is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
The ability and impact of the media to shape public opinion and, consequently, the fundamental foundations of democracy, is crucial in the rapidly shifting environment of information distribution that exists today. A less-examined aspect of media influence, on the other hand, occurs quietly with media lobbying having a subtle but also substantial influence on both media power and the way democracy operates. Media lobbying, often concealed from public view, stands as a vital element in the complex interplay between corporations and the neoliberal state and acts as a channel for media elites to further their own agendas (Popiel, 2018). The impact of this has major implications for the creation of media-related laws and policies, progressively tilting them in favour of industry-friendly rules. With an emphasis on how the power of Facebook had an effect during the US presidential elections, this article will explain how media lobbying helps major technology companies monopolise media dominance and harms democracy.
Media Lobbying Is Not Talked About Enough
In order to advance the objectives of lobbyists and their clients, public officials must be persuaded to support legislation and policies that benefit those interests. The United States sticks out as an anomaly compared with various other industrialised countries because of its lenient legislation controlling media lobbying (Popiel, 2018). Lobbying serves as a crucial element in shaping political processes and in the realm of media industries, lobbying has been a longstanding tool that is employed. Surprisingly, while lobbying’s influence is widely recognised, it receives limited direct attention from scholars in the field of political economy. Furthermore, when it comes to the lobbying efforts of major players in the tech industry such as Facebook and Google, their enormous influence on media spaces frequently goes under researched and unstudied (Popiel, 2018).
Before we delve into how Facebook affects democracy and its lobbying efforts, it’s important to understand why Facebook, as a tech giant, deserves our attention. With impressive increases in user engagement and the number of daily active users from year to year, Facebook continues to hold the top spot among social media platforms on a worldwide scale. With a staggering 2.9 billion monthly active users, it has become an undeniable digital powerhouse (Dean, 2023). What is even more remarkable is that Facebook is utilised by an estimated 60.42% of the world’s active internet users each month, illustrating the extent to which it exists in the online world (Dean, 2023). Given Facebook’s unrivalled reach and impact in the globally connected age, it should come as no surprise that it has become the leading choice for advertising. Facebook is an unbeatable platform for those wishing to broadcast their ideas to a huge and diversified audience because of its widespread presence. Understanding Facebook’s complex contributions to information distribution and advocacy for policies is thus not only pertinent but also crucial to understanding the evolving landscape of modern democracy.
Facebook on lobbying
Big tech companies like Facebook have an interest in keeping a tight grip over the data that enters and leaves their platforms. This control includes the power to influence the laws and rules that regulate their business and goes beyond simple content monitoring. Companies like Facebook dedicate enormous amounts to lobbying operations in order to preserve and solidify this power. They use lobbying as a key tactic to influence legislators and government organisations, ensuring that the laws and regulations are written in a way that supports their corporate objectives. Facebook invested $19.68 million in lobbying in 2020, surpassing every other major technology company (Feiner, 2021). It lobbied on subjects ranging from immigration, global tax laws, the integrity of elections, content regulation, and copyright reform. They stepped up their lobbying spending by 17.8% from 2019 to 2020, a year in which the Federal Trade Commision and 48 attorneys general from states and territories across the nation lodged antitrust lawsuits against the firm (Feiner, 2021).
No One is Checking on Facebook
Given its enormous yearly lobbying expenditures and dominant position within the media sector, Facebook has tremendous influence over the content that is shared on its platform. The authority of Facebook to disseminate or censor material as it deems appropriate extends to political advertising. The site acts as an essential medium for political candidates looking to interact with voters due to its enormous user base and reach. Facebook ads are referred to as “promoted” or “sponsored” material. They frequently mention that people you know have liked a certain page or item and may invite you to like it as well (Andrews, 2019). If you do, information from that website may later display in your News Feed without being sponsored. Facebook gives marketers the option to target specific audiences on the basis of 98 or so factors, including demographics, geography, hobbies, and actions like device use and purchases (Andrews, 2019). Unlike media such as newspapers, radio, and television advertising, which have traditionally been independently audited, Facebook is the sole assessor of its own advertising statistics (Andrews, 2019). In the context of digital democracy and election transparency, this effect, however, also raises critical concerns about the possibility for bias and the capacity to influence public discourse.
Facebook For Trump
In many nations, Facebook has risen to the forefront of political discussions. Many instances show that Facebook plays a pivotal enabling role in facilitating the circulation of fake news, misinformation, and disinformation, including for the US Presidential Elections. For example, Russians linked to the Internet Research Agency purchased Facebook advertising aimed at disseminating controversial content. These advertisements promoted Trump while also criticising Hillary Clinton, notably by implying that black people should not be endorsing her campaign according to information made public by Facebook and an indictment handed down by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (Bump, 2018). There are obvious financial motivations to the circulation of this type of news as higher numbers of likes, shares, and visits result in greater revenue for Facebook pages and the site as a whole (Andrews, 2019). Additionally, Facebook was rather transparent regarding how it could potentially be a helpful instrument for political campaigns prior to the 2016 election. One of its selling points was its capability to link voter files to individual behaviour and subsequently display tailored adverts to those voters (Bump, 2018). If you are familiar with Facebook analytics, you may target extremely particular individuals with promotions and ads that are incredibly focused (Andrews, 2019).
Trump on Facebook
The campaign of Donald Trump made it known that Facebook performed a key role in its success. Brad Parscale, who oversaw Trump’s digital strategy, frequently praised his administration’s utilisation of Facebook. Approximately 80% of the digital advertising budget, according to him, was used on Facebook (Bump, 2018). The notion that Facebook had influenced the outcome of the US election, however, was immediately dismissed by Mark Zuckerberg as a really ridiculous thought (Andrews, 2019). Yet, Facebook enabled negative campaigning to be put together to reduce the number of voters in areas or demographic groupings that were inclined to support Hillary Clinton. These dark advertisements were frequently specifically targeted at a user’s profile and hidden from other users (Andrews, 2019).
In conclusion, the widespread effect and unrestricted power of digital companies like Facebook pose serious threats to the integrity of critical events like presidential elections as well as the health of democracy. The risks of media lobbying should not be understated, even while these businesses are essential to information distribution, their lobbying activities may bias regulatory and legislative processes in their favour. To guarantee our democracy and safeguard it from the negative impacts of unchecked corporate power, it is crucial to strike a balance between innovation and responsible governance.
The Shadow Influence: Media Lobbying, Tech Titans, and the Shaping of Democracy © 2023 by Phoebe Abigaille is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Andrews, L. (2019). Big Tech, Small State? Facebook, the Media and Democracy. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429466410
Bump, P. (2018, March 22). All the ways trump’s campaign was aided by Facebook, ranked by importance. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/03/22/all-the-ways-trumps-campaign-was-aided-by-facebook-ranked-by-importance/
Dean, B. (2023, March 27). How many people use Facebook in 2023?. Backlinko. https://backlinko.com/facebook-users
Feiner, L. (2021, January 22). Facebook spent more on lobbying than any other big tech company in 2020. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/22/facebook-spent-more-on-lobbying-than-any-other-big-tech-company-in-2020.html
Popiel, P. (2018). The Tech lobby: Tracing the contours of new media elite lobbying power. Communication, Culture and Critique, 11(4), 566–585. https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcy027