Republicans find a new favorite political warzone: schools
Facebook fuels far-right political activity on school issues, from masks to CRT
Parents across the U.S. have been on edge about virtual vs. in-person learning throughout the pandemic, and Republican politicians and conservative media figures have sought to take advantage of emotions running high. Online and off, we’ve seen schools become fierce political battlegrounds where conservatives mobilize their grassroots to attack mask requirements, trans rights, and “Critical Race Theory.” In this week’s FWIW, we’ll break down how these new battles have unfolded on sites like Facebook in recent weeks.
By the numbers:
FWIW, here were the top 10 political spenders on Google/YouTube ads last week:
The NRSC dropped over $400,000 on Google advertising last week, bringing their combined Facebook + Google ad spend in Q3 to over $6.3 million. This week, the committee announced that they had raised over $13.7 million online in Q3. You gotta spend money to make money!
Another major development in the Google Ads space this week: The company has banned advertising featuring false claims about climate change. 👏
Here’s what last week’s political ad spending picture looked like on Facebook and Instagram:
Stand for Children was once again the top political ad spender on Facebook last week, pushing tax cuts for working families as part of the Build Back Better plan in Congress. Overall, digital ad spending on these types of congressional lobbying efforts declined a bit last week, as legislative action on the BIF and reconciliation package has stalled. We’ve got the latest data on pro- and anti-BBB digital ad spending here >>
While several dozen groups are spending big to pressure swing members of the House and Senate like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, others are trying to ditch them altogether. The Primary Sinema PAC, which launched last week backed by major Dem donor group Way to Win, appears to be a legitimate effort - they’ve started spending a not-insignificant amount on Facebook ads in the past few days:
But the real winner of the week was Terry McAuliffe’s campaign, which launched a wave of Taylor Swift-themed Facebook ads to bash their opponent. Read all about it in yesterday’s issue of FWIW Virginia.
Political campaigns and nonprofit organizations have spent around $3.4 million on Snapchat advertising in 2021 so far. Here are the top 10 political ad spenders on that platform year-to-date:
Speaking of Snapchat, their team rolled out a new run-for-office feature this week that is 💯 , proving that not all social media companies are garbage all the time.
Republicans try to make schools a political warzone
Last week, during the Virginia gubernatorial debate, Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe walked into a trap. A debate question initially centered on transgender students’ rights turned into a conversation on parents’ input into public schooling and curriculum. McAuliffe attempted to assert that mobs of parents shouldn’t have the ability to take books off of library shelves, and in doing so, gave his Republican opponent a general line of attack in defense of parents’ rights. Since the debate, his opponent has tried to fill the airwaves and internet with this narrative - underlining Republican enthusiasm in turning schools into political battlefields across the nation.
Throughout the pandemic, as parents across the U.S. have been on edge about virtual vs. in-person learning, Republican politicians and conservative media figures have sought to take advantage of emotions running high. Local school boards have increasingly become fierce political battlegrounds where Republicans mobilize their grassroots to attack trans rights, “Critical Race Theory,” and school mask requirements. According to Google, search interest in “school board meeting” has skyrocketed:
It’s gotten so bad that school board members have asked the federal government for protection, and Saturday Night Live even dedicated an entire sketch to it last weekend:
Pouring gasoline on these wildfires is Facebook, where conservative media churns out red-meat content on a daily basis, and a vocal minority of parents organize in Facebook Groups to take their activism offline. Some of the most viral political content on Facebook in recent days involves these school fights. The below video from Newsweek featuring a father speaking out in opposition to mask requirements has received over 7.5 million views and over 450,000 interactions - and has received millions more views as it has been directly shared from right-wing pages and sites.
The usual suspects of Candace Owens, Ben Shapiro, and Dan Bongino are encouraging this grassroots fury, continuously sharing, applauding, and egging on parents speaking out at school board meetings across the U.S.
Conservative groups and Republican politicians continue to fundraise and engage their base over these school-related issues, spending tens of thousands on online ads on sites like Facebook. Conservative media outfit PragerU has long run advertising attacking Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ students’ rights, and the Republican National Committee last week launched ads calling school mask requirements fascist:
Harder to track than these public posts from high-impact pages are private posts by parents and closed Facebook Groups. Groups on Facebook have long been a popular way for parents and teachers to connect about local issues, and we know they are having an enormous impact on the current politics around schools. In my own hometown of Knoxville, TN, parents organizing in a Facebook group caused the county to cancel class for a day last week as schools prepared for protests over a court-imposed mask mandate. Groups like “Let Them Breathe” and “Unmask the Kids” have tens of thousands of members sharing false or misleading content on an hourly basis and urging others to take political action.
We should remember, though, that school mask and vaccine requirements are supported by a majority of Americans. Critical Race Theory isn’t a real thing outside of some university classrooms, and only a small minority oppose trans youth participating in sports. That said, Democrats, and particularly political strategists in DC, should note the right’s enthusiasm to have these fights.
With Election Day in Virginia less than a month away and the midterms on the horizon, it’s important to note that many of these hotly contested debates are taking place in suburban, swing legislative or Congressional districts. Although a vocal minority of parents and right-wing activists are stirring the pot here, their frenzy can have a ripple effect online and on local news - reaching more and more voters with their fringe talking points and arguments. Next month’s Virginia election results - particularly in places like Loudoun County and Fairfax County - could be a sign as to whether those arguments are effective or not.
That’s it for FWIW this week! If you enjoyed reading this week’s issue, share it on Twitter and give us a shout out!