5 ways the internet changed our politics in 2021
From viral right-wing narratives to digital ad spending, 2021 was anything but a normal “off-year”
Okay…so maybe 2021 wasn’t quite what we expected it to be. We got off to a rough start, and things haven't been the same since. Through it all though, we’ve published 45 issues of this newsletter, and have closely monitored the digital spending, strategies, trends, and tactics that have influenced our politics in 2021. In this year’s final issue of FWIW, we’ll break down what we consider to be the most notable - but first…
By the numbers:
On Facebook + Instagram 👍
FWIW, here were the top 10 political ad spenders on Meta platforms (FB + IG) last week:
Political ad spending on Facebook mostly remained the same since last week. Right-wing sites like The Daily Wire, Newsmax, and PragerU continued to spend heavily on ads about inflation, immigration, and calling President Biden a “tyrannical dictator.”
Google + YouTube 💻
Meanwhile, here’s what the ad spending picture looked like on Google platforms last week:
Donald Trump’s Save America PAC was the top spender on Google ads nationwide last week - and it wasn’t even close. One new advertiser on the chart this week is the Association of Equipment Manufacturers - an industry group that is currently running “thank you” ads on behalf of mostly Democratic lawmakers who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Political advertisers spent more on Snapchat in 2021 than in previous off-years - so much so that we pulled together a roundup featuring the top 10 spenders and their notable ad creative. See our roundup of 2021 Snapchat political ads here >>
Christmas came early this year: we recently noticed that Roku is now consistently updating its political ads archive. While the streaming & smart TV company does not provide data on how much money is spent, we’re excited to share that we’ll be able to flag notable new creative or advertisers week over week in future issues of FWIW.
There were 11 political campaigns or advocacy groups advertising on Roku last week: Advancing AZ, Bernie Moreno for Ohio, Americans for Limited Government, GA Secretary of State, Greg Abbott, Saving Arizona PAC, Taylor for Congress, Whatley for AL State Senate, Chris Van Hollen, and Coalition for Medicare Choices.
In one ad, TX Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign attacks Beto O’Rourke on single-payer healthcare, using President Biden’s words in the 2020 presidential primary against him - an ad that the Abbott campaign has yet to run on any of Facebook or Google’s platforms.
Who knows, maybe next year we’ll begin including a round-up of print ads from the Delaware News Journal!
5 ways the internet changed our politics in 2021
Since January, we’ve closely monitored digital spending, narrative trends, and campaign tactics that have had the greatest impact on our politics this year. Here are the top 5 things that we believe were most notable in 2021:
A Meta Problem
The company formerly known as Facebook continued to have an enormous, outsized, and mostly negative impact on our politics in 2021, to no one’s surprise. At the start of the year, the company acknowledged that the plotters of the Capital insurrection and failed coup attempt coordinated and organized using Facebook’s platform. In May, our own research found that the vast majority of top-performing posts on the platform about COVID vaccines were negative or anti-vax. In June, we were the first media outlet to report that contrary to Facebook’s “ban” of former President Trump, the company was allowing him to run ads for his 2024 campaign-in-waiting. Later, after months of criticism from researchers who continued to discover negative things about their platform, the company decided to restrict access to its data transparency tool, Crowdtangle.
From amplifying lies about the 2020 election or COVID to not enforcing its own policies against bad actors like Trump, Meta has continued to serve as one of the greatest vectors of misinformation that our society faces. Let’s hope that changes in 2022 - but we’re not so sure it will. For a full breakdown of the company’s very bad year, watch this new video from Accountable Tech:
Right-wing Media Meets its Moment
Far-right digital media has been growing for years, but something about their success in 2021 just felt different. With Biden in the White House and COVID continuing to dominate headlines, fringe sites like the Daily Wire, Breitbart, Western Journal, Conservative Brief, and Newsmax have repeatedly beat out mainstream news as go-to sources of content on social media.
Here’s just a peek at the problem, from last month’s Newswhip rankings:
Throughout 2021, these sites have repeatedly pushed content intended to generate clicks and revenue for their owners, while misleading, misinforming, and tearing our country apart. They have launched all-out assaults on Dr. Fauci, called for President Biden’s removal from office, and are making an ongoing attempt to make inroads with the Latino community.
The Return of the Trump Campaign
Although Donald Trump left office in January, his presidential campaign never really stopped spending online. At the end of 2020, Trump formed a political action committee, Save America, to manage his campaign assets and continue to raise money. While Donald Trump was personally banned from several social media platforms at the beginning of the year, Save America was not - and they have taken full advantage of that loophole to continue engaging their supporters and building a war chest for 2024. Meta has even allowed his team to run ads claiming he is “the True President” and stating that the 2020 election was “the most corrupt in history.”
Since the beginning of the year, Donald Trump’s campaign has spent at least $1.96 million on Facebook and Google ads - with the majority of that spending occurring since July.
From Blue Commonwealth to Commonwealth Blues
It’s hard to talk about major political moments in 2021 without mentioning Virginia. In November, Democrats suffered unexpected losses in Virginia’s highly-watched gubernatorial and legislative elections, which we closely tracked via the FWIW Virginia newsletter.
While there were myriad offline factors that played into Republicans’ surprise wins on election night, one online narrative played an outsized role in the campaign. Beginning in the summer, a fringe minority of parents organized in Facebook groups to take over school board meetings to complain about mask mandates, Critical Race Theory, library books, and transgender student rights. This created a loud drumbeat of school-related content in the right-wing media ecosystem that later jumped into the mainstream press - one that Democrats later had to answer to. In early October, we wrote about how Republicans successfully turned schools into a political warzone, and unfortunately, Democrats were caught off guard.
(A bright spot in Virginia: we recently interviewed Delegate-elect Irene Shin for our Campaigner newsletter to get a candidate’s perspective of this year’s races in the Commonwealth.)
Building Back Bigger and Better
The single largest focus for digital political advertising in 2021 was the President’s Build Back Better Agenda - a large social spending plan that has the potential to bring America closer to its peers in the developed world in terms of providing paid family leave, childcare, climate action, and more. Industry and advocacy groups on the Right and Left organized non-stop all year to pass or kill the bill - which passed the House but is now stalled in the Senate until 2022.
Much of the advertising in support of the bill’s passage focused on fighting climate change. In fact, we noted in October that these ads comprised the largest pro-climate advertising campaign in history.
New year, new you: Here are some 🔥 job openings that we wanted to share:
That’s it for FWIW this week! We wanted to thank you for sticking with us this year, and although we’ll be taking off the next two weeks for the holiday, we’ll be back with our regular programming in 2022! If you’re bored over the break, keep an eye on our Twitter account, where we’ll continue to post regular updates and spending data as we have it!