Candidates are tapping into a $10 billion war chest to fuel an extreme view of America’s future
$10billion (£9billion) can do a lot to change people’s lives and livelihoods. But in the coming weeks, it’s going to be spent trying to convince American voters to run for their favorite candidate in the upcoming midterm elections.
This is the estimated amount that will be spent by candidates and their representatives in the next election, according to the lobby group, OpenSecrets. “We’re seeing a lot more money, more candidates, and more political divisions than in 2018,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of OpenSecrets. “Spending is rising across the board in this medium-term cycle, fueling a vortex of polarization that shows no signs of abating.”
Political campaigns have never been the cleanest fights, with many candidates having resorted to dredging up their opponents’ weaknesses and missteps in the past – sometimes outright romanticizing them in order to slander their opponents, as in the case of the defeat of John Kerry in 2004. US presidential election.
But the rise of social media, and their power to polarize and poison our discoursemade things even more extreme.
Candidate and former American football player Herschel Walker spent nearly $1,000 to promote advertising on Facebook and Instagram, in which he pledges to “fight” for America. “Their gutter politics only encouraged me to fight even harder!” he said in reference to President Joe Biden in an ad that has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people since its Oct. 10 launch. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial MP, passed thousands of dollars in advertisements across Meta’s platforms in the run-up to the election, including calling for President Biden’s impeachment and announcing that she was going on a “hog hunt.”
Although social media has helped make politics more tribal, there is no suggestion that political advertising on social media is helping to drive a wedge between a candidate and his opponent. “The tone, timing and partisanship of the audience have little impact on the persuasion of an advertisement,” says Steven Buckley, lecturer in media and communications at City University London. “And yet, despite the research pointing this out, staggering sums of money are still poured into this enterprise with reckless abandon.”
This research includes an ongoing study in political advertising that shows that voters have an “extreme” lack of political advertising literacy and are not given enough information to understand whether the claims made in these ads are legitimate or not.
Different platforms have taken different approaches to political advertising. TikTok has always banned political advertising, but in recent elections politicians and political parties have attempted to bend the rules using lobby groups or proxies to post on their behalf. Twitter has political advertising prohibited since 2019.
Meta has also banned political advertising – but only for the final week of campaigning before the midterm elections. After coming under fire in previous elections, the company – which operates Facebook and Instagram, as well as WhatsApp – said it would also remove any advertising questioning the legitimacy of the election. However, if a user wishes to question whether the election was rigged in an unpaid “organic” post, they are free to do so.
And on YouTube, the world’s second-largest search engine, political advertising is allowed, even though the company claims it is carefully monitored. Verified political advertisers in the United States can only target users based on age, gender, location, and interest in topics, rather than more specific criteria.
The video-sharing platform came under fire during the 2020 US presidential election for allowing Donald Trump to buy youtube mastheadthe banner ad at the top of the site’s home page on election day.
“While it’s certainly true that political divisions in America are widening, I don’t see political advertising as a cause,” Buckley says. Rather, it’s the general tenor of the conversation, including what’s being talked about on social media and how it’s done, that has contributed to souring the relationship.
The key question is whether it’s all worth it. Is $10 billion a good value if you’re able to sway people’s opinions and get them to vote for you? And is it possible to get people to switch allegiance in such a deeply rooted political environment in the first place?
“There’s a feeling with a lot of the political ads you see, that they’re more about stroking the candidate’s ego or making political consultants seem indispensable, rather than trying to educate voters about the way the politician will try to make their voters lives better,” Buckley says.
“A lot of money,” he adds, “is spent on very little gain beyond the potential of your cheesy, viral publicity that mocks everyone.”