Google and Facebook have come to play an extraordinary role in U.S. political campaigns. Both technology companies provide highly valuable consulting services to presidential campaigns free-of-charge, lending them politically-experienced employees to assist with a wide variety of core functions.
Having such political staff “embedded” inside campaigns helps both sides. Campaigns get free help targeting and persuading voters; the companies reap valuable intelligence for their lobbying operations and forge relationships with politicians who will be responsible for laws affecting their interests.
The practice gives the companies a level of inside knowledge from the campaigns and sway with policymakers few other industries can match. Overall, a review of available evidence suggests that the embed program constitutes a unique, undisclosed, and largely unregulated influence channel that greatly benefits the companies’ business.
The novel practice was not foreseen by lobbying rules, which seek to allow the public to see companies’ efforts to influence elected officials. Nor was it contemplated under Federal Election Commission guidelines, which require political candidates to pay for services provided by companies. It raises a host of troubling questions, including whether the corporations are circumventing a ban on donating to campaigns and failing to disclose valuable, “in-kind” contributions.
Tech's support for campaigns also gives rise to a multitude of other potential conflicts of interest. “It creates a very awkward situation,” an online advertising executive told AdAge in 2012. “Google has all this control over the pipeline of inventory and now they're getting potentially into the strategy and the spending decisions. I find that troubling.”
Over the past decade, Facebook and Google have become giants in the political advertising space. Americans watched 110 million hours of political content on Google’s YouTube in the year between April 2015 and March 2016. According to Google, that’s “100X the amount of time it would take to watch all content ever aired on CNN, C-Span, MSNBC, and Fox News combined.”
It’s a profitable business. With a virtual duopoly over the digital advertising market, the companies earned a substantial portion of the estimated $1.4 billion that campaigns spent on digital ads in the 2015-2016 election cycle.
But the companies are more than passive recipients of campaign dollars. Google employees work inside political campaigns where they are sometimes indistinguishable from campaign hands. These embeds, offered to every presidential campaign in 2016, helped politicians target voters, craft their messages, design their ads, and even respond to opponents during and after political debates.
Employees of Google’s YouTube service also consulted with campaigns on the technical aspects of video production, promotion and analytics. Technology company executives working with the campaigns have described a much more expansive role much more akin to full-scale political consultants.
As one Google embed in a 2016 campaign put it: “We are so close with [the campaigns] that we are typically sitting in their offices or having daily calls.”
We are so close with [the campaigns] that we are typically sitting in their offices or having daily calls.
In at least some cases, the relationship extended even further. Staffers for Republican candidate Rand Paul travelled to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, to participate in “ideation” sessions.
Starting in 2012, Facebook also offered the presidential campaigns dedicated staff to work inside their campaigns. Their role extended far beyond traditional ad sales. Facebook embeds acted as consultants on branding, communications—and overall strategy for the campaign.
The embeds have proved highly valuable for both technology companies, giving them unique, insider access to candidates, their evolving policy decisions and political strategy. The embeds buy both companies hard-to-match goodwill with the politicians they help elect.
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gently reminded European lawmakers during his recent testimony: “Facebook plays a positive role by helping leaders like you connect with voters.”
Our review of LinkedIn profiles found that Google employees often shift between the political ad sales teams and lobbying roles, raising the question of whether internal firewalls exist to stop internal campaign information from reaching company lobbyists. Lee Dunn, Google’s head of international elections outreach, was previously the head of White House outreach. In that role, she lobbied the Trump administration on issues with major implications for the company’s business, such as digital taxes and copyright.
Sometimes Google employees worked with campaigns at the same time as they lobbied for Google. Google’s team lead for U.S. politics, Rob Saliterman, said he sold ads to political campaigns while at the same time helping Google's lobbying arm influence elected officials on policies affecting the company.
Between them, Facebook and Google have a phalanx of experienced political hands to deploy to campaigns on both sides of the political divide. That places them in a position to reap the benefits no matter who wins.
CfA, relying on LinkedIn profiles, identified 70 Google and YouTube employees and interns whose job responsibilities included political work, as well as 32 Facebook employees that performed this work. In addition, Facebook also hires contractors for its political teams.
Many of those hired by Google and Facebook were political insiders. Our analysis showed that nearly 40 percent of Google’s politics and elections staff worked in politics or government before going to the company, and more than 50 percent of Facebook's politics and elections staff had prior political experience.
Rand Paul campaign staff were invited to an “ideation” session at Google headquarters
This level of participation in political campaigns goes far beyond what the tech companies like to advertise. Google says it doesn’t make any corporate contributions to political candidates. However, it doesn’t count any of the services it donates, which, on the open market, might collectively cost tens of millions of dollars.
Facebook has said the services offered to campaigns are “sales support” and “consistent with support provided to commercial clients in the normal course of business.” But evidence suggests the white-glove service provided to political campaigns by both companies extends well beyond that offered to commercial clients. Job postings for Google’s political positions list responsibilities that include crafting messages and executing strategy for campaigns, for example. Postings for many comparable jobs serving commercial positions do not.
Google provides political campaigns with services and digital real estate that commercial clients could not access. During recent debates, for example, embedded Google employees worked with political campaigns to release extended or clarifying statements through a box at the top of the Google search page, for free. Voters saw those boxes if they searched for political topics during the debates.
Those “candidate cards” went beyond public education to provide a valuable form of free advertising for certain candidates. For example, cards for the Donald Trump campaign appeared in Google search results during a primary debate in which Trump declined to participate. The same Google employee who worked with the Trump campaign on its advertising plan also helped it craft the content of its candidate cards during the debates.
Other evidence suggests that political ad sales are more than just another business segment for the companies. The political services team of at least one of the companies reportedly had no revenue targets, “in recognition of [its] government affairs role.” One Facebook job posting described its government and politics team as an “external arm” of the company, reinforcing the impression it enjoys a special status beyond its value as a revenue-generating segment.
Academics who interviewed the tech company embeds shortly after the election found they made no bones about the purpose of the embeds. “[S]taffers at these firms stated that providing tools to candidates to help them get elected was a way to build relationships with the elected representatives who would be in a position to regulate them in the future.”
The value of Google and Facebook’s services to campaigns cannot be overstated: Their participation in a campaign can make the difference between winning and losing. Trump told 60 Minutes, “The fact that I have such power in terms of numbers with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I think it helped me win all of these races where they’re spending much more money than I spent.”
One Trump digital campaign hand put it even more simply: “Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won.”
Google and Facebook have compiled sophisticated advertising profiles on nearly every American, information they use to help campaigns target ads to increasingly narrow segments of the population. In 2016, for example, Google for the first time included “left-leaning” and “right-leaning” political views among the targeting criteria available to advertisers in the United States.
That reach and impact is why few campaigns would want to risk the companies’ helping their opponent, rather than themselves. During his 2014 campaign for Texas governor, for example, Greg Abbott unilaterally dropped a long-running and acrimonious antitrust investigation into Google that he undertook as Texas attorney general. While no evidence has emerged to suggest the two events were related, Google’s central role in campaigns begs the question: Would a candidate for office wish to be hostile to the interests of Google or Facebook?
Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won. — Trump campaign consultant
Other technology companies also provide services to campaigns. Microsoft offers infrastructure like email and data storage, while Twitter also embedded staff in the Trump campaign. Those also raise their own set of issues. In terms of their reach and impact, however, no other companies came close to the value of the services provided by Google and Facebook, nor were they so intimately involved in crafting the political messages different groups of voters heard.
“Twitter is how [Trump] talked to the people, Facebook was going to be how he won,” Parscale said on 60 Minutes. Market analysis and leaked internal presentations show that both the Clinton and Trump campaigns also relied heavily on Google during the 2016 election.