Government Refuses to Suspend Political Party Spending on Meta

While government advertising was suspended on Meta out of principle, it seems political advertising might be too valuable to lose.

Ever since the government passed Bill C-18, now called the Online News Act, the government has been left scrambling for any way to react to the entirely predictable moves of Meta and Google announcing that they will drop news links on their platforms.

The best the Canadian government can come up with is suspending $10 million government advertising on Meta. The move meant that Meta lost less than one hour of revenue. Beyond that, the government has been just issuing hyperbolic and unhinged statements about how this fight between the government and the platforms – a fight that was entirely caused by the government mind you – is just like World War II, claiming that this is a fight for democracy.

Now, neither move is really solving anything from the government’s side of things. The platforms have already walked and are in the process of dropping news links. If anything, the government is desperate to have them come back and continue sharing news links. At this point, the government is proving that they are not reasonable to work with and walking was the right call. Heck, the government and some die hard supporters of the legislation still legitimately and hilariously believe that this is all just negotiating tactics.

Throughout the move of dropping government advertising, the government has insisted that the move is something they did out of principle. The claim was that they couldn’t, in good conscious, continue to send Meta money after Meta, well, made a legitimate an reasonable business decision when they refused to play ball with the government. So, for the crime of not doing everything the government says, they are “standing up” to “big tech” by making such a move. The move, unsurprisingly, was cheered on by the big media outlets who tried desperately to make this move as big of a deal as humanly possible.

The problem is, that cheering was somewhat tempered when they asked the government was going to also suspend political advertising to the platforms as well. On multiple occasions, the media asked the Liberal party if they intend on continuing that decision to refuse to send Meta money for advertising. Generally speaking, the answer wound up being, “Well, let’s not get too hasty, here.” Right now, the political party is still running ads on Facebook. The dollar amounts isn’t high and it wouldn’t have even come close to making a dent in the overall revenue Facebook is making. However, if this was just a move based on principle, where’s the principle here?

The simple truth is that the political party knows that advertising on Meta is really really valuable. Additionally, the Conservative party is opposed to the Online News Act and they will just fill the political advertising void left behind after. This is not something the party wants by any means. So, really, they are willing to suspend the tax payer funded advertising, but when it comes to their own political war chest, well, that’s off limits. So much for principle, there. The discrepancy didn’t go unnoticed, either. Michael Geist had some thoughts on this as well:

The government escalated the battle over Bill C-18 yesterday, announcing that it was suspending advertising on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms due the company’s decision to comply with the bill by blocking news sharing and its reluctance to engage in further negotiations on the issue. While the ad ban applies to federal government advertising, Liberal party officials confirmed they plan to continue political advertising on the social networks, suggesting that principled opposition ends when there might be a political cost involved.

If it were truly comparable to a world war, then surely the Liberal Party (joined by the NDP) would not continue to advertise on the platform. Yet since the 2021 election call, the party alone has run approximately 11,000 ads on Facebook and Instagram. That is separate from individual MPs, who have also run hundreds of ads. The Meta Ad Library provides ample evidence of how reliant the party has been on social media. For example, since the start of the year, Anna Gainey ran over 500 ads as part of her by-election campaign in Quebec. David Hilderley, who was a candidate in the Oxford by-election, ran approximately 180 ads on Facebook during the same timeframe.

Ultimately, if this is the government’s Plan B to the unfolding mess that is Bill C-18, it is unlikely to make much difference. Government advertising is supposed to be about department communication not subsidy and the suspension may make it harder to reach younger demographics on issues such as summer co-op programs or Canadian Armed Forces recruitment. Regardless, the ad boycott does not alter the foundation of the legislation of mandated payments for links with uncapped liability. Moreover, the costs extend beyond just Canada, as the companies are surely looking to the global market and the potential for billions in liability for linking if others adopt the Bill C-18 approach as their model. Viewed with that prism, a federal government ban that does not even include the governing political party pales in comparison to the risks of the dangerous Bill C-18 precedent.

As I have said for weeks, everyone loses with Bill C-18 and that includes Meta. But it is readily apparent that the Canadian media sector will take the biggest hit with lost links, cancelled deals, and a bill that may not generate any new revenues. The recent experience of the CBC’s Brodie Fenlon provides a vivid illustration of the harm to Canadian media outlets that awaits under Bill C-18. In fact, even if Google finds a compromise position – the government is clearly holding out hope it can strike a deal – the lost revenues from even one platform means this legislation may prove to be a net-negative for the media sector. That suggests that it will soon be time for Plan C, starting with a de-escalation of Prime Minister’s absurd rhetoric of a country under attack.

Even if the Liberal Party (and NDP and Bloc for that matter) all suspended their advertising on Meta, it won’t even phase Meta. If $10 million in revenue has no shot in phasing Meta, then a few hundred, or even a few hundred thousand, dollars is unlikely to generate anything more than a shrug from Meta. The dollar amounts just aren’t there to get Meta’s attention.

Perhaps more damaging about all of this is the fact that the Liberal party is trying to egg on an overall boycott of the advertising on platforms. The fact that the parties refuse to partake in the very boycott they are encouraging suggests that there is a growing rift between the government and big publishing. How can one treat seriously a boycott that one of the main cheerleaders refuse to partake in? If I were big publishing right now, and I truly believed that Bill C-18 is the cure all solution it is sold as being, I’d be feeling rather betrayed right now. In a situation where allies are few and far between, this refusal from a key ally would sting especially hard.

At best, the chances of any sort of success of this advertising boycott would have been extremely remote at best. It would have required, at least, $1 billion in lost revenue for Facebook to even pay attention to (not get them to change their mind, but just getting their attention in the first place). Collectively, so far, the advertising budgets of the participating companies just isn’t there. What’s more, getting companies to drop a key marketing partner and just eat the potential losses out of a fight all about “principle” is a big ask for a lot of companies in the first place. After all, if it’s a bridge too far for the Liberal party, it’s probably going to be a bridge too far for a number of companies.

Really, the best for the government, at this stage, is to admit defeat and start looking at a charm offensive to try and change the platforms mind. The chances of that working are low, but those odds are better than launching political attacks against the platforms.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

5 thoughts on “Government Refuses to Suspend Political Party Spending on Meta”

    1. Ironically, they are hurting their own reputation with the big media organizations by doing this on top of it all. Didn’t expect a rift to form between the large media companies and the government on Bill C-18 until this happened. Burst out laughing when I found out.

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