How Canada’s “anti-Facebook” laws gave Facebook a monopoly on political ads
Meta, the parent company to both Facebook and Instagram, is the only option for political ads in Canada.
Google and Twitter used to have political ads, but recently blocked them. And TikTok doesn’t allow political campaigns to run ads. Here’s why:
Running political ads on Google, YouTube, and Twitter
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when you could run political ads on Google, YouTube, and Twitter. That all changed in 2019.
As with many things in Canada, this was a response to something going on in the United States. The US political establishment was grappling with the fallout from Trump’s 2016 win, and the possibility that Russian bot accounts may have tipped the scales in his favour.
In response, the Canadian government passed C-76, called the Elections Modernization Act, in December 2018. Among other things, it imposed very detailed regulations on political advertising on social media.
It required social media companies to confirm the address and identity of all political advertisers; that advertisers attach tags to their posts to tell users who paid for the ads; and that the companies keep a public log of all ads for 7 years.
Transparency is good though, right?
It is, but…
The problem is the amount of work involved to comply with the law.
Imagine you’re a social media company who wants to let people advertise for their political campaigns.
There are 338 ridings in Canada, with at at least 4 political parties running in each riding, plus the national campaigns, third-party issue campaigns, and various special interest groups.
If each campaign wants to have just one team member work on digital ads, you’d have to verify the address and identity of at least 1200 people. Then you need to store those details securely. Then you need to make the code changes to your platform to meet the law, and then you need a team of lawyers to ensure you’re in compliance and stay in compliance… it’s a lot of work.
And most of that has to be done by real people, it can’t be automated.
The law came into force in December 2018, and the companies had to have their systems in effect by June 2019.
What happened when Canada regulated political ads on social media?
These laws were passed to limit the power of Meta. Instead, Meta was the big winner.
Since 2019 when the regulations came into place, Canada’s federal political parties have spent over $15 million dollars on the platform. Various third parties have spent millions more.
They were the only company that was able to comply with Canada’s complex new regulations.
Google and YouTube decided it was easier to simply ban political ads during elections.
Twitter banned all political ads on its platform worldwide shortly after the 2019 election. In 2022 Elon Musk announced that Twitter would be allowing political ads again, but so far they’re only allowed in the United States and heavily limited in their content and style. We’ll see if those changes make their way north of the border soon.
TikTok bans all political ads — their justification is “protecting the creative, entertaining platform that our community wants.” It’s worth noting that their policy was announced in October 2019, a few weeks before Twitter also banned all ads.
With the rules as complex as they are, we expect that it will be very difficult for any new social media platforms to enter the market for political ads.
What are the rules for political ads on social media in Canada?
Facebook and Instagram require all ads related to politics or social issues to be logged in their system. This means the person placing the ads has to verify their identity, and the page needs a special disclaimer which is linked back to the page. It’s a lot of work, and most campaigns and political organizations will need the help of professionals (like our team at testerdigital) to do it.
On other platforms, like TikTok, and Twitter, you can post political content, but you can’t run any political ads at any time.
Google and YouTube allow political advertising at the provincial level and federally outside of election periods.
Because of their more complex rules, you might have to appeal your ads if their automated processes flag your ads for breaking the rules.