Facebook and Google competed for anti-immigration ad dollars during the 2016 election

In a textbook illustration of the conflict of interest between Facebook and Google’s ostensible dedication to free speech and their ostensible espousal of progressive values, the internet giants reportedly took millions in advertising money from a major anti-immigration group at the same time as both were engaged in pro-immigration advocacy.

Bloomberg reports that both companies worked with conservative nonprofit Secure America Now, which spent millions on ads on the platforms during the 2016 election. SAN’s ads, as far as they related to immigration and refugees, were execrable scaremongering, invoking the phantom threat of Sharia law being applied worldwide — the Mona Lisa wearing a niqab, for instance.

And these weren’t merely banner ads placed on popular keywords for xenophobes. They were reportedly targeted and tested with plenty of help from Google and Facebook. The former reportedly worked directly with SAN to improve the campaign, while the latter did extensive A/B testing to see if vertical video would do better. (Head of AR/VR and former head of ads Andrew Bosworth denied the company worked directly with SAN, but confirmed it worked with SAN’s ad agency. Google has since removed the ads.)

A few short months later, in January, both companies spoke out forcefully against anti-immigration efforts, specifically the newly sworn-in President’s executive order that attempted (unsuccessfully) to ban immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries.

Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post:

We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat… We should also keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help. That’s who we are.

And Sundar Pichai in an internal memo:

We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S….We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so.

Am I the only one for whom these sentiments ring hollow considering that both companies had so recently been dancing for coins from a group whose sole purpose was to scare voters into choosing the candidate with the strong anti-immigration stance?

I understand that it is a very difficult balance, to be a platform on which free speech is valued, but to have to run a business as well. You can’t turn your nose up at something that turns your stomach — not if the price is right. So the scammy apps, miracle diet pills, and conspiracy theories all get their ad spots just like Target and Newegg.

But to take millions from a group one day, and then turn around the next to say you are deeply and fundamentally opposed to that group’s values — I’d like to say I don’t expect that kind of cynical hypocrisy, but that would be a lie. Why expect any better?

On this and other issues, there seems to be little connection with what the public head of the company says, and what the guts of the company actually do. Whether it’s on accessibility, diversity, abuse, politics, finances, transparency, or any other issue: all you can trust that these companies will do is what’s best for the bottom line.