Facebook's bad couple of weeks just got a little worse. Following CEO Mark Zuckerberg's awkward address on free speech at Georgetown, a contentious hearing in Congress about proposed digital currency Libra that really served as a referendum of the company's trustworthiness, and a letter signed by more than 200 Facebook employees that takes issue with the company's policy on political ads, the social giant now has to contend with the gubernatorial campaign of Californian Adriel Hampton.
Hampton, a 41-year-old San Francisco resident, doesn't have a campaign website yet, and he hasn't released his positions on many of the key issues facing the state. Most people probably haven't even heard of the guy, despite the fact that he ran for Congress back in 2009, holding the distinction of being the first candidate to announce his run on Twitter. None of that has stopped him from appearing on CNN a couple of times this week and experiencing the sort of viral trending most career politicians--including a few Democratic candidates for President--would envy.
To be sure, Hampton's campaign is something of a joke, but it's a serious one. Hampton, a journalist-turned-political consultant, has decided to run for California governor so he can expose what he sees as the dangers of Facebook's policies allowing intentionally false statements in ads from politicians. By filing the paperwork to become a candidate himself, Hampton exposed a loophole that allows him to pay to post pretty much anything on Facebook without fear of fact-checking, just like other politicians, including Elizabeth Warren, who pulled a similar move two weeks ago.
By way of example, last week in Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Mark Zuckerberg if he'd allow an ad claiming Republicans are endorsing the Green New Deal, to which the Facebook CEO responded, "Congresswoman, I don't know the answer to that off the top of my head. I think probably." (Perhaps smelling blood in the water, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced Wednesday his platform would stop running all political ads.)
Hampton, and a video editor he keeps on retainer, seized on that moment and created just such an ad, which he targeted to political journalists using Facebook's extremely granular ad-targeting abilities.
"I actually have never run a fake ad on Facebook," Hampton says. "So I was really surprised. One, that Facebook accepted the ad in the first place, because I thought if you're a well-run company whose CEO has just been grilled about this in Congress by the most famous congressperson in the U.S., that they would be prepared for exactly this ad. Obviously, the ad was designed to be caught. It had, you know, the blatant falsehood that was a parody of what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had asked [Zuckerberg] about. So I was surprised that it got approved."
The ad, which was seen by only about 60 people according to Hampton, was soon taken down. It did, however, launch Hampton and his campaign, which is how he's come to appear on cable news and in outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian. Not bad for what Hampton says was a $2 Facebook ad buy. (Sure, that seems small, but it represents more than 10 percent of the $19 he says he's invested so far.)
Hampton intends to run more ads calling out Facebook as well as Donald Trump, PG&E, and California governor Gavin Newsom. He's also raising funds through his super PAC, the Really Online Lefty League (a.k.a. TROLL), to pursue legal action against Facebook on behalf of his campaign.
All of this, from his super PAC's tongue-in-cheek name to Hampton's arch media appearances, calls to mind "culture jamming," a type of activism that dates back to the 1990s and early 2000s. Back in those pre-social media times, savvy activists like the makers of Adbusters magazine targeted corporations using the very tools those companies developed, turning them into unwitting accomplices. What's different about Hampton's campaign, though, is that if he's not careful, he might find himself on the ballot, his joke suddenly very real.
"People are acting like this is some pure stunt," Hampton says. "I'm a fucking ace politician! And people are, like, not recognizing that fact."
Beyond politics, Hampton is concerned about the way many ads work on Facebook. "There's a serious misinformation and active disinformation problem that Facebook has. A lot of [ads] are simply misinformation or fake news created specifically to collect either money or clicks." The company, according to Hampton, "may take a reputational hit, because companies that don't want to be associated with that practice aren't going to want to advertise as much there.
"People need to know they're fake ads, people need to know what a fact-check is. They need to know that some of these companies can be trusted and others can't. I'm not sure who the ones who can be trusted are, but we're working on it. Once we deal with Facebook, we'll get Twitter and YouTube."
Hampton didn't follow that up with, "I'm Adriel Hampton, and I approve this message." He didn't have to.