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Facebook's election role is likely to increase

David Pierson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Negative headlines. Congressional inquiries. Corporate apologies. The heightening scrutiny surrounding Facebook after it allowed Russian trolls and inflammatory political ads to spread on its network is the kind of thing companies would do anything to avoid.

But don't expect it to harm the tech giant's bottom line.

As the political world looks to apply the lessons of Donald Trump's victory to future campaigns, one of the few clear conclusions is that Facebook played an outsized role in propelling the candidate to his improbable win.

The company's ability to affordably target hyper-specific audiences with little to no transparency gives it a distinct advantage over other forms of media, researchers and political operatives believe.

Political ads on Facebook have fueled controversy. They spread Russian propaganda and reportedly helped the Trump team suppress black support for Hillary Clinton and aided a conservative political action committee in targeting swing voters with scaremongering anti-refugee ads. Yet the backlash is unlikely to dissuade future campaigns from relying on Facebook's advertising platform.

Even the threat of new regulation governing the disclosure rules for political ads on social media can't stunt the company's stock price, which continues to reach new heights.

If anything, the controversies appear to be functioning like a giant advertisement for the effectiveness of Facebook's political advertising business.

"I don't lose sleep over Facebook's business. I lose sleep over the future of democracy," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of a book on Facebook out next year called "Anti-Social Media."

Political advertising represents a small percentage of Facebook's booming $26.9 billion ad business, which accounted for nearly 15 percent of all the money spent on digital advertising worldwide in 2016, according to EMarketer. But it's growing rapidly.

After years of trepidation, campaigns are adjusting to the fact that audiences are increasingly found online rather than via TV, radio or print.

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