Why Tech’s Future Will Be More Partisan, Not Less

Picture taken on May 12, 2012 in Paris shows an illustration made with figurines set up in front of Facebook's homepage. Facebook, already assured of becoming one of the most valuable US firms when it goes public later this month, now must convince investors in the next two weeks that it is worth all the hype. Top executives at the world's leading social network have kicked off their all-important road show on Wall Street -- an intense marketing drive ahead of the company's expected trading launch on the tech-heavy Nasdaq on May 18. AFP PHOTO/JOEL SAGET (Photo by Joël SAGET / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)
JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

In January, majority control of the U.S. Senate will be determined by a pair of runoff elections in Georgia, but the candidates, their campaigns, allies, and issue advocacy groups are prohibited from reaching voters with online ads on Facebook and Google. Combined, these two companies account for 61% of all digital ad spending in the U.S. 

Shortly before Election Day, both tech giants announced they would be placing a moratorium on all political or advocacy ads from midnight on November 4th. Facebook stated their decision was to stop candidates and their allies from prematurely or inaccurately claiming victory. 

There was no definitive timeline set for lifting the ban, even as Georgia’s two senate elections headed to a runoff. Some media outlets reported the possibility that such a ban could be permanent, ridding Facebook and Google of the multi-billion dollar revenue-generating headache of political advertising altogether. 

After a week of complaints by the Left, Facebook notified political advertisers that the ban would continue for at least another month and that they couldn’t simply allow political ads for a few pages or in a single state. 

So why does this matter?

Roughly one in five American adults say social media is where they primarily get their news and information about politics. At least 70% of these individuals are registered voters, but they’re less likely to vote and more skeptical about voting. This year’s election results should dispel any notion that high turnout elections are bad for Republicans. 

Paid advertising is essential for reaching voters who rely on social media for political information. By some estimates, just 5.5% of a page’s followers will see its posts without paid promotion. 

Like many of their policies about campaigns and elections, this is another arbitrary decision by Big Tech with little evidence to support its efficacy. Unfortunately, there’s nothing anyone can do in the short-term because there isn’t enough competition in the online advertising market to take on the Facebook-Google duopoly. 

This episode highlights the importance of a campaign, political party, or issue group owning an audience of supporters, through email, text messaging, or website. When you control the content and the distribution, a third party cannot interfere. 

Despite the innovative technology involved, this is hardly a new idea. During our nation’s earliest days, newspapers relied on the support of political parties to fund their operations and gave their benefactors endorsements and favorable coverage. By 1860, 80% of the American press was partisan. Only with the rise of new sources of advertising revenue were newspapers able to adopt their neutral approach. 

As their share of advertising revenue has plummeted with the advent of more choices, legacy media outlets are struggling to find sustainable business models for delivering news in the 21st Century. One obvious path forward is a return to the past: partisan or ideological patronage of media. On the Right, opinion and personality-driven outlets, like Daily Wire, are leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Left, through efforts like the Courier Newsroom, are more subtle in their approach to partisan-backed news gathering.  

Big tech platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube, now play an equally important role as the primary distribution channels for news online. In an earlier age, the publisher of the newspaper would also be its printer or the radio producer would be the owner of the broadcasting antenna. 

72% of adults in the United States believe social media companies have too much power and influence when it comes to politics. Indeed, Facebook and Twitter have demonstrated inconsistency in the enforcement of their own standards. Three in four Americans surveyed believe it is very or somewhat likely that social media platforms censor political viewpoints they disagree with. The sentiment is growing among Republicans according to survey data over the last two years. 

Some on the Right believe the best way to fight back is to create separate safe spaces to discuss viewpoints and share political content with a different set of censors deemed sufficiently conservative. Parler and Rumble are the latest attempts to pursue this strategy. This approach fails to understand both the problem and the technology. 

Voters believe social media is an important and valuable part of the political process, with majorities surveyed in both parties crediting the technology with raising awareness about key issues, organizing social movements, getting elected officials to pay attention, influencing policy debates, and changing people’s minds on political topics. But, that’s not all they want social media to be used for. 

By August this year, 55% of all social media users reported being “worn out” by political posts online. In fact, only 10% of Republicans using these platforms reported that they like seeing lots of political posts and discussions. 

The critical innovation underlying social media is not the ability to share text, links, photos, and videos, but the network effect that comes with millions of people using a platform. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube are only useful because other people are creating and consuming content there. 

Parler and Rumble may draw a specific niche audience of conservatives who want to congregate online to discuss politics with a moderation policy more favorable to right-wing viewpoints, but they are unlikely to reach the level of usage needed to unlock comparable network effects.

Americans want to discuss politics on social media, but not exclusively and they think the experience could be better. Nobody is eager to digitize the Thanksgiving dinner political debate all year long. The way forward, then, is to iterate new models for expressing, sharing, and validating political opinions socially. 

Startup Caucus, the Republican campaign technology incubator and investment fund I manage, has invested in a handful of companies that tap into existing social networks to achieve partisan objectives. Swipe Red, an app by Buzz360, empowers activists to connect their personal contacts with powerful data to reach persuadable voters they already know. With Voterfied, another startup, candidates and elected officials can know that the people completing surveys and petitions on social media are actually registered voters, making the results more trustworthy and reliable. 

Relatively speaking, social media is still a new technology and it’s already having profound effects on our everyday lives. As a society, we are still working through foundational questions about how we will accept and use this revolutionary invention. Today, anyone around the world can read these words and they didn’t come from a printing press. You could post a video on YouTube that could be seen by more viewers than a hit movie. 

With this technology and its liberation of ideas come important questions. What, if any, limits should be placed on user-generated content? Who should decide what these restrictions might be? What are the consequences of a public square owned by private companies in a society that values free speech?

My long-term view is that social media will become an open technology standard, in much the same way as email or the world wide web. No single entity owns the infrastructure. Anyone can create a website or send an email. Individuals decide which sites to visit and which emails to read. They have many choices about their experience, like Chrome or Firefox and Gmail or Yahoo.

The same will be true for social media. Someone could decide they like the experience of Facebook and are willing to trade privacy for that, but will still be able to follow social posts from a friend who doesn’t have an account on the platform, but does post via Twitter. Facebook may decide to place limitations on the content individual posts and reads. Other users may opt for the more conservative-friendly moderation policy of Parler. 

If the problem with technology is that too much power resides in the hands of a few CEOs, the answer cannot be to shift that same concentration of power to someone else, but rather to distribute the responsibility for these decisions and reclaim our own ability to choose.

Our future will be a hybrid of past and present. Partisans will fund the creation of content and platforms for creators, but technology will free individuals from institutional gatekeepers. 

Eric Wilson is Managing Partner of Startup Caucus, a Republican campaign tech incubator and investment fund.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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