As Meta flees politics, campaigns rely on new tricks to reach voters

Days after President Donald Trump clinched a surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election, Mark Zuckerberg touted his company’s influence in politics. The CEO proclaimed he was “proud” Facebook had given many “a voice in this election.”

“We helped millions of people connect with candidates so they could hear from them directly and be better informed,” Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook.

Now, on the eve of a matchup between Trump and President Biden, Meta is changing course.

After years of pitching its suite of social media apps as the lifeblood of campaigns, Meta is breaking up with politics. The company has decreased the visibility of politics-focused posts and accounts on Facebook and Instagram as well as imposed new rules on political advertisers, kneecapping the targeting system long used by politicians to reach potential voters.

Waves of layoffs have eviscerated the team responsible for coordinating with politicians and campaigns, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private personnel matters. This includes foreign-based workers and U.S. employees who promoted the company’s products to politicians and fielded questions from campaigns about their services.

An advertising sales team, which once embedded with the Trump team during the 2016 election, is now responsible for many of their previous responsibilities, the people said.

Meta’s shift away from current events is forcing campaigns to upend their digital outreach in a move that could transform the 2024 election. Comparing March 2020 to March 2024, both the Biden and Trump campaigns saw 60 percent declines in their average engagement per Facebook post, a Washington Post review found, with double-digit declines on Instagram.


The Trump team has cast Meta’s moves as an effort to tip the scales in favor of Biden. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, had already begun to shift its online focus, rolling out a cadre of influencers and volunteers to spread their messages across private spaces on social networks.

Still, in tight races across the country, neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to ignore Facebook - the world’s largest social media network. Political ad spending on social media is expected to almost double from $324 million in 2020 to $605 million in 2024, according to estimates from digital analytics firm EMARKETER.

“There’s no other platform that reaches as many voters at that scale,” said Eric Wilson, a managing partner at Republican campaign tech incubator Startup Caucus. “So campaigns would be foolish to walk away from that.”

Meta spokesperson Dani Lever argued that the changes are a response to user feedback. “These changes are intended to impact what people see because that is what they told us they wanted - to see less political content and have more controls,” she said. “This approach builds on years of work and is being applied to everyone.”

More than a decade ago, Silicon Valley courted the political world.

Zuckerberg moderated a 2011 town hall with President Barack Obama, broadcast live on Facebook. Presidential debates in the 2016 campaign streamed on Facebook Live. Advertising employees kept politicians and campaigns up to date on the company’s latest tools, even embedding with the Trump team in 2016.

But following widespread outrage over attempts by Russian operatives to infiltrate social media to influence the 2016 presidential race, Meta - then known as Facebook - began rejiggering its strategy. The company scrapped commissions for its political ads sales reps and created a new site to promote its tools for politicians across the political spectrum.

The Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was partially organized on Facebook, sped this retreat. Soon after the siege, the company announced it would reduce the amount of political content appearing in users’ news feeds.

“People don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services,” Zuckerberg told investors three weeks after the attack.

In February, Meta announced that it would stop recommending political content from accounts users don’t follow on Instagram or its upstart text-based app Threads. Instagram head Adam Mosseri warned last year that Threads would not “encourage” politics and “hard news” on the platform because it wasn’t worth the scrutiny.

The pullback has affected major news outlets, dramatically impacting engagement.

The 25 most-cited news organizations in the United States lost 75 percent of their total user engagement on Facebook and 58 percent of interactions on Instagram between the first quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2024, according to a data analysis by The Post. Right-leaning news outlets such as Newsmax, the Daily Wire, Fox News and Breitbart suffered bigger declines than their mainstream counterparts on Instagram, but no such partisan split occurred on Facebook, the analysis found.

“It’s just an interesting moment,” said Natalie Stroud, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies social media. “There seems to be just a pattern away [from news and politics on social media], and it just makes me think: Where will people go for this information? Or will they just go without it?”

Research suggests that social media draws an “inadvertent audience” to news about current events, increasing users’ knowledge about politics. One 2020 study found that deactivating Facebook for the four weeks before the 2018 U.S. midterm election decreased users’ factual understanding of the news and political polarization.

“Most people don’t care about politics that much, and so they’re not going to go out and seek out information about politics,” said Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University who studies social media and politics. “Because people were on social media platforms for nonpolitical reasons, they got exposed to more political information.”

Meanwhile, political campaigns are adjusting to this new reality. Biden appears to be countering the trend by posting more frequently on social media accounts - including from official White House pages - to drive engagement. Biden-linked Facebook posts increased from about 300 in March 2020 to more than 600 in March 2024, while Trump’s posts dropped from more than 1,000 in March 2020 to about 200 in March 2024, the Post analysis found.

While Trump dramatically increased posts to his own social network, Truth Social, he has refrained from publishing frequently Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Top Trump campaign adviser Chris LaCivita likened Meta’s push away from politics to a form of shadow banning, when tech companies allow users to post but secretly depress who sees the content.


“People should be concerned, and Congress should have questions,” he said. “I think Big Tech would be absurd if they think Republicans would not have a concern about them putting their finger on the scale of organic political speech.”

By contrast, the Biden campaign headed into the 2024 race with the understanding that it would be difficult to reach voters online. Instead, the campaign has been relying on digital advertising and volunteers to spread the word about the president in private digital spaces such as messages and social media groups.

Political campaigns of all types have sought to overcome Meta’s ad targeting limits by using their own data or publicly available information such as voter registrations to customize which ads are shown to certain audiences on Facebook. But trying to match voter files to individual users isn’t always precise and doesn’t completely replace the value that Meta’s targeting options once offered campaigns, said Wilson, the conservative digital strategist.

“Facebook knows a lot about its users,” Wilson said. “It’s some of the most valuable advertising data in the world … [but it’s not available] for political campaigns.”

Still, those campaign ads may become more critical in a world in which users are seeing less news and politics on their feeds.

“How are voters supposed to learn about the issues that are at stake in an election?” Wilson asked. “It’s, I think, ultimately troubling for both sides - but really our democracy in general - that politics is being treated as, like, a four-letter word and pushed out of the public square.”

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The Post analyzed Facebook and Instagram engagement for top news organizations as well as for the Trump and Biden campaigns using data from CrowdTangle. The Post examined the 25 media companies that received the most links from other media sources during the 2016 election, excluding non-news websites (Wikipedia and presidential campaigns), as included in the 2018 book “Network Propaganda,” by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts. The Post also separately examined regional publications and additional right-wing news outlets to ensure the robustness of the findings about partisan effects.

The analysis of campaign posts included accounts in the names of presidential candidates, their running mates and the campaigns themselves. The Post also separately examined official White House pages from Trump in 2020 and Biden in 2024.