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After facing criticism from Congress, Facebook says it will no longer embed employees in political campaigns, a practice it and other tech companies have a history of doing.
Facebook aided the Trump campaign with on-site support during the 2016 election. These tech-savvy “embeds” ended up being crucial to President Donald Trump winning the election, 2016 Digital Director Brad Parscale said in a conversation on 60 Minutes. U.S. lawmakers have since questioned the company about whether it offered more support to the Trump campaign than the Clinton campaign. Facebook said it offered identical support, but the Clinton campaign didn’t accept the offer of on-site embeds.
The Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog organization, released a report in August explaining companies such as Facebook and Google embed employees in political campaigns to inform campaign strategy. According to that report, the Google Transparency Project, this sort of political involvement benefits both parties. For campaigns, it means “free” aid in targeting citizens and swaying their vote. Companies, meanwhile, gain valuable intel on political lobbying and establish relationships with politicians who could prove important in representing their interests in the future.
However, the practice seems to skirt both lobbying guidelines and rules set by the Federal Election Commission. This Campaign for Accountability called on lawmakers in Congress and the Senate to look into the practice and determine whether it’s something that needs regulation.
“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,” the Campaign for Accountability writes.
Going forward, Facebook will offer political campaigns access to its political advertising website for advice.
“Facebook made the right decision to end its practice of providing free consultants to presidential campaigns,” Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said in a statement. “It’s time for other tech companies, including Google, to follow Facebook’s lead and stop trying to curry favor with politicians by offering free campaign services.”
While the Trump campaign isn’t working as closely with Facebook now as it did in 2016, Parscale will again run the Republican political campaign for 2020 and be able to leverage the knowledge he gained from those embeds two years ago.
Christina Bonnington is a tech reporter who specializes in consumer gadgets, apps, and the trends shaping the technology industry. Her work has also appeared in Gizmodo, Wired, Refinery29, Slate, Bicycling, and Outside Magazine. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and has a background in electrical engineering.