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Why you won’t see Biden and Trump on Facebook or Instagram this election

Days after President Donald Trump won a surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg touted his company’s influence in politics. The CEO stated that he was “proud” that Facebook had given many “a voice in this election.”

“We’ve helped millions of people connect with candidates so they can hear directly from them and be better informed,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook.

Now, on the eve of a duel between Trump and President Biden, Meta is changing course.

After years of promoting his suite of social media apps as the lifeblood of campaigns, Meta breaks up with politics. The company has reduced the visibility of politically targeted posts and accounts on Facebook and Instagram and imposed new rules on political advertisers, clamping down on the targeting system that politicians have long used to reach potential voters.

Waves of layoffs have eviscerated the team responsible for coordinating with politicians and campaigns. according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private personnel matters. This includes foreign-based employees and U.S. employees who have promoted the company’s products to politicians and answered campaign questions about their services.

An ad sales team that was once part of Trump’s team during the 2016 election is now responsible for many of their previous responsibilities, the people said.

Meta’s shift away from current affairs is forcing campaigns to expand their digital reach in a move that could transform the 2024 election. Comparing March 2020 to March 2024, both the Biden and Trump campaigns saw a 60 percent decline in their average engagement per Facebook post, a Washington Post review found, with double-digit declines on Instagram.

The Trump team has used Meta’s moves as an attempt to tip the balance in Biden’s favor. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, had already begun to shift its online focus, rolling out a group of influencers and volunteers to spread their messages through private spaces on social networks.

Yet in tight races across the country, neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to ignore Facebook — the world’s largest social media network. Political ad spending on social media is expected to nearly double from $324 million in 2020 to $605 million in 2024, according to estimates from digital analytics firm EMARKETER.

“There is no other platform that reaches so many voters at this scale,” said Eric Wilson, managing partner at Republican campaign technology incubator Startup Caucus. “So it would be foolish to leave campaigns out of that.”

Meta spokesperson Dani Lever argued that the changes are in response to user feedback. “These changes are intended to impact what people see because that’s what they told us they wanted – to see less political content and have more control,” she said. “This approach builds on years of work and is applied to everyone.”

More than a decade ago, Silicon Valley courted the political world.

Zuckerberg co-moderated a town hall with President Barack Obama in 2011, which was broadcast live on Facebook. Presidential debates in the 2016 campaign streamed on Facebook Live. Ad staffers kept politicians and campaigns informed about the company’s latest tools, and were even part of the Trump team in 2016.

But following widespread outrage over attempts by Russian agents to infiltrate social media to influence the 2016 presidential race, Meta – then known as Facebook – began to rethink its strategy. The company eliminated commissions for its political ad vendors and created a new site to promote its tools to politicians across the political spectrum.

The January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was organized in part on Facebook, accelerated this retreat. Shortly after the siege, the company announced it would reduce the amount of political content in users’ news feeds.

“People don’t want politics and strife to take over their experience with our services,” Zuckerberg told investors three weeks after the attack.

In February, Meta announced it would stop recommending political content from accounts that users don’t follow on Instagram or the new text-based app Threads. Instagram head Adam Mosseri warned last year that Threads wouldn’t “encourage” politics and “hard news” on the platform because it wasn’t worth the scrutiny.

The withdrawal has hit major news outlets, dramatically impacting engagement.

The 25 most cited news organizations in the United States lost 75 percent of their total user engagement on Facebook and 58 percent of interactions on Instagram between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2024, according to a data analysis by The Post. Right-wing news outlets such as Newsmax, the Daily Wire, Fox News and Breitbart suffered larger declines than their mainstream counterparts on Instagram, but no such partisan divide occurred on Facebook, the analysis found.

“It’s just an interesting moment,” said Natalie Stroud, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies social media. “There just seems to be a pattern (of news and politics on social media), and it makes me think: Where are people supposed to go for this information? Or do they just go without?”

Research shows that social media attracts an “unintended audience” to news about current events, increasing users’ knowledge of politics. A 2020 study found that deactivating Facebook during the four weeks before the 2018 US midterm elections reduced users’ actual understanding of news and political polarization.

“Most people don’t really care about politics, so they don’t seek out information about politics,” said Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University who studies social media and politics. “Because people were on social media platforms for non-political reasons, they were exposed to more political information.”

Meanwhile, political campaigns are adapting to this new reality. Biden appears to be bucking the trend by posting more frequently on social media accounts — including on official White House pages — to increase engagement. Facebook posts linked to Biden rose from about 300 in March 2020 to more than 600 in March 2024, while Trump’s posts fell from more than 1,000 in March 2020 to about 200 in March 2024, the Post analysis found.

Although Trump has dramatically increased the number of posts on his own social network, Truth Social, he has refrained from posting regularly on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Top Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita likened Meta’s push away from politics to a form of shadow banning, where tech companies allow users to post but secretly depress those who see the content.

“People should be concerned and Congress should have questions,” he said. “I think Big Tech would be absurd to think that Republicans wouldn’t worry about putting their finger on the scale of organic political expression.”

In contrast, the Biden campaign entered the 2024 race knowing it would be difficult to reach voters online. Instead, the campaign relied on digital ads and volunteers to spread the word about the president in private digital spaces like messaging and social media groups.

Political campaigns of all types have tried to overcome Meta’s limitations in ad targeting by using their own data or publicly available information such as voter registrations to tailor which ads are shown to certain audiences on Facebook. But trying to match voter files to individual users isn’t always accurate and doesn’t fully replace the value that Meta’s targeting options once provided to campaigns, said Wilson, the conservative digital strategist.

“Facebook knows a lot about its users,” Wilson said. “It is some of the most valuable advertising data in the world… (but it is not available) for political campaigns.”

Still, these campaign ads could become more important in a world where users see less news and politics on their feeds.

“How should voters learn about the issues at stake in elections?” Wilson asked. “It is, I think, ultimately troubling for both parties – but really for our democracy in general – that politics is being treated as a four-letter word and pushed out of the public domain.”

Methodology: The Post analyzed Facebook and Instagram engagement for top news organizations and for the Trump and Biden campaigns using data from CrowdTangle. The Post examined the 25 media companies that received the most links from other media sources during the 2016 election, excluding non-news websites (Wikipedia and presidential campaigns), as listed in the 2018 book “Network Propaganda” by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts. The Post also separately examined regional publications and additional right-wing news media to ensure the robustness of the findings on partisan effects.

The analysis of campaign posts included accounts by the names of presidential candidates, their running mates and the campaigns themselves. The Post also separately examined the official White House pages of Trump in 2020 and Biden in 2024.