- During the U.S. presidential race last year, Facebook and Google ran parody "tourism" video ads in Nevada and North Carolina promoting a heavy anti-Muslim sentiment, with imagery depicting France and Germany overrun by Sharia law. While much has been written about Russian operatives helping spread similar content online, Bloomberg published a report Wednesday that indicates insiders at Google and Facebook directly collaborated with and helped target these anti-refugee campaigns in those swing states.
- Bloomberg obtained internal reports from the American ad agency that ran the campaign and received information from five anonymous sources involved in the effort. The spots were created by the agency Harris Media for Secure America Now, a conservative nonprofit group. Sales, creative and technical staff at Facebook actively competed with Google's teams for the business of Secure America Now, whose marketing featured both strong anti-Islam and anti-Hillary Clinton messaging, Bloomberg's sources said.
- Facebook's relationship with Secure America Now went deeper to include tests of new technologies like its vertical video format through the nonprofit's campaigns. Facebook and Harris Media declined to comment to Bloomberg; Google declined an interview but shared a statement noting it eventually blocked ads from Secure America Now that violated its policies.
The discovery of Russian operatives spreading inflammatory ads on Google and Facebook has shaken up the ad space recently, but the latest news that employees inside of those companies were also eager to help collaborate on and target similar campaigns might make for an alarming development. Marketers have long held a begrudging relationship with Facebook and Google, which are the two largest digital advertising platforms in the world and therefore wield a massive amount of influence over where brands spend their money online.
This year, brand safety has dominated the ad industry conversation as marketers look to distance themselves from content that features the type of bigoted or otherwise harshly politicized messaging that the Secure America Now videos prop up. Facebook and Google, for their part, are faced with a conundrum in that political campaigns provide a massive source of revenue but one they must approach carefully to avoid appearing to favor one side of the spectrum. However, the material in the Secure America Now videos — which even left members of Harris Media "uneasy," sources told Bloomberg — likely should've been avoided altogether and might put another dent in the credibility of these platforms.
Facebook has recently pledged to completely rethink how it approaches political advertising, though that initiative stemmed from revelations about the extent of Russian meddling on its platform. In a Facebook Live video streamed last month, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced changes including hiring new employees around the world focused on election integrity and providing users with a hub where they can track political ads and who funds them.