Who are you?
That was the question Facebook posed to many state and local politicians less than two weeks before Alabama’s primary elections Tuesday. Suddenly, sources of all political and issue-driven advertisements were required to go through a new verification process.
For most, like Seyram Selase, a candidate for the District 32 seat in the Alabama House of Representatives, there simply wasn’t enough time to complete a process which required waiting on Facebook to mail out letters of approval.
“After spending hundreds of dollars with Facebook, I was appalled that the platform that was created while I was still in college was now negatively affecting my campaign,” Selase wrote in an email to the Star.
As of Friday, candidates across the state had reported spending over $120,848.55 on Facebook advertisements this year, according to state campaign finance records. During the same five-month window in 2014, Alabama politicians reported spending approximately $29,000 on such ads with the social media giant.
Their spending was slowed down when Facebook updated its advertising protocols on May 24. Efforts to reach representatives of Facebook for this story were unsuccessful. However, an announcement from Facebook said this policy change was done in an attempt to respond to reports of fake news and foreign interference. The new process required the submission of personal information that included pictures of a government-issued ID and a home address.
That was where Cleburne County Circuit Clerk Warren Sarrell drew the line. Sending all that identification information over the internet didn’t sit well with him.
“Not too crazy about people having my physical address unless I know them,” Sarrell said.
Sarrell, not being aware of the new policy, was actually able to run his ad online for three days, for $35.67, before Facebook took it down.
Brit Blalock, campaign manager for the Democratic candidate for Alabama Secretary of State Heather Milam didn’t mind giving Facebook her address. She just hated the timing.
“We can’t be in every single corner of the state on a daily basis,” Blalock said. “But if we have a really important message that we want to get out to people all across the state we can use social media as a tool to help do that ... it’s vital to getting your messages out to voters.”
Blalock said Milam’s campaign had planned to step up its presence on Facebook during the 10 days prior to the election. She said there were other options, such as television and radio, but it’s hard to overlook the difference in cost.
“Even the minimal spend is going to be in the thousands of dollars,” Blalock said. “You can’t just spend like $40 on TV.”
Blalock once paid $20 to boost a Facebook post that found its way in front of 780 people. She said someone with $40 and less specific restrictions could easily reach as many as 3,000.
Some candidates found it incredibly useful to customize who saw their advertisements based on things like location, age and whether any of their Facebook friends had liked the campaign’s page. That way candidates get the biggest return on investment.
That return only increases if it finds a supportive audience.
“You get a couple thousand people looking at something and then 500 of them share it,” District Judge Tom Wright said.
Wright spent at least $100 on Facebook advertisements in 2018, but said he would have spent more if the policy change had occurred after Tuesday.
Board of education candidate Lisa Amerson said Facebook campaigning could become even more critical in the future. This year she spent $56 on a pair of Facebook ads.
“As these younger people age up ... their expectation is to see your advertisements on there,” Amerson said.
She said some of those constituents could interpret a small online presence as signs of backwards thinking or a lack of enthusiasm in the job.
Facebook’s potential didn’t stop Amerson from criticizing the service. While she favors increased transparency, she said Facebook rejected several advertisements she attempted to post after she received her verification code in the mail on Saturday.
She’s going to give Facebook another chance in November. At least she will as long as the time commitments caused by the new policy don’t threaten to cut into campaign time she might spend with voters.
Wright said he expects Facebook will play a bigger role in his campaign strategy next time — assuming it’s still the dominant social media force it is today.
“In six years, when I run again, Facebook may not exist or it may rule the world,” Wright said.