Earlier this week, folks in tech-savvy onlookers were utterly scandalized when a tweet thread from former Federal Trade Commission CTO Ashkan Soltani began being passed around. In it, Soltani calls out the American Civil Liberties Union for committing one of the cardinal sins of the tech privacy sphere: sharing data with Facebook.
“While I have tremendous respect for the work @ACLU and other NGOs do, it’s important that nonprofits are bound by the same privacy standards they espouse for everyone else,” Soltani added. In other words, this is an organization that’s done some incredible work advocating tech privacy for the general public. Why don’t they hold themselves just as accountable as the companies they’re rallying against?
Here’s the thing though. When the ACLU wants to get the word out about fighting voter suppression or advocating for trans healthcare access in your home state, chances are they’re going to need some sort of advertising to do so. While going door-to-door might have worked in the past, the nonprofit sector (just like every other sector) is largely shifting towards advertising online, if only because that’s where we’re all spending our time nowadays. And more and more, advertising online means advertising on Facebook—or else.
It’s an argument that makes some serious sense on one hand, but reeks of what I’ll affectionally call “Mr. Gotcha-ism.” Even if you don’t know Mr. Gotcha by name, you’ve almost certainly seen the 2016 comic by Matt Bors featuring a person complaining about the ills of society—like Apple suppliers’ reportedly shitty labor practices, or car makers’ downright unsafe automobile design—and the titular Mr. Gotcha reminding people that, well, they still use iPhones and still drive cars. The comic strip closes on the eternally memefied image of a man lamenting that we should try improving society, while Mr. Gotcha pops up (literally out of a well) to remind the man that he’s busy participating in said society.
In the couple of years that I’ve been ragging on digital ads for a living, I’ve been Mr. Gotcha’d more times than I can count. My articles calling out Facebook’s labyrinthian privacy policies get me emails asking why Gizmodo uses Facebook as one of the many analytics tools on its site. Pieces on Google’s invasive ad practices get emails asking why we use Google to serve some of our ads. And articles about ads, in general, garner comment after comment asking why we have ads on our site if we hate them this much. These commenters were so adamant that I notice how clever and observant they were that I ended up pinning a Mr. Gotcha-themed tweet to my Twitter account. Back in the pre-COVID era, I even had a (slightly modified) Mr. Gotcha comic pinned to my cubicle. I was committed to this bit.
The thing is, the reason that you’re seeing Facebook track you across just about every site you know—regardless of the ethos of whoever’s running them—is ultimately due to monopoly power. The reason a lot of brands end up hooking themselves to the Facebook ad machine in some way isn’t because they want to necessarily, but because they have to.
If you click through the bulk of the ads that the ACLU has run over Facebook until now, not many of them ask for donations outright—at least until you click on the ad and visit the nonprofit’s site. Once there, just about every page is heralded by a banner reminding you that “with your support, we can lead freedom forward,” alongside an ask for either one-time or monthly donations.
And while the ACLU declined to comment on how much of the org’s multimillion-dollar donations were garnered with the help of Facebook’s ad machine, a 2020 analysis from the nonprofit consultancy M+R offers some clues. In it, they described that throughout 2019, nonprofits across the board were getting 3.5% of all online revenue through Facebook—most of it coming through Facebook’s maligned fundraising tool, and some of it coming from targeted ads. Meanwhile, the same analysis found that just about every nonprofit was spending up to half of their budget to advertise on social media platforms, as opposed to say, Google search. And the smaller a nonprofit is, the more their budget gets dumped into these same platforms—with smaller names spending upwards of 96% of their budgets there.
The advertisers behind major pages will regularly trash Facebook’s unintuitive and broken adtech tools in one breath while also acknowledging in the next that they just can’t quit the platform. Even at $5 million in ad spend, the ACLU is still one of Facebook’s smaller advertisers—a group that has collectively said in the past the platform is just “too valuable” to quit. Even when larger brands say they’re quitting Facebook for a certain amount of time, that typically means they’re only quitting one or two Facebook properties, while still funneling that ad spend elsewhere on Facebook’s ecosystem. Putting your ad dollars on the platform isn’t a matter of endorsing the crap that Facebook pulls on a regular basis. For nonprofits, in particular, it’s a matter of survival.
Ultimately, the question of “why the ACLU is using Facebook to advertise” is one that opens up an entirely new can of worms that nobody quite seems ready to answer. If Facebook’s ads are broken, then why does the company—together with Google—continue to control as much as 60% of ad dollars spent online? Why do advertisers refuse to leave, even when the company’s been caught lying again and again about how effective their ads really are?
Ultimately, the answer boils down to competition. While the FTC, along with dozens of attorneys general, already launched an investigation into Facebook engaging in monopolistic practices at the end of 2020, it seems like folks don’t seem to grasp exactly what Facebook’s monopolized here. For most of us, it’s eyeballs and attention. For nonprofits, for-profits, and everyone else, it’s sometimes every dollar they spend.