Darren Richardson

Sept. 6, 2012

When you have a lot of money, you can do a lot of things – like buy your way to the top of Facebook search results when what people are searching for has absolutely nothing to do with you or the product you’re selling.

For the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan campaign, that means ensuring your names are placed in front of voters who aren’t looking for them, at least not right at that moment. In that regard, Facebook advertising is a lot like advertising on TV and radio. But there’s one big difference. When viewers change from Channel 5 to Channel 6 on television, they can expect to find different programming. But on Facebook, searches for terms like “Bill Clinton,” “Barack Obama” or “Democrat” are now returning the same links that are being returned in searches for terms like “Mitt Romney” or “Paul Ryan.”

Sponsored searches are nothing new, but with this what-you-want-is-not-what-you-get set of search results on Facebook, the Romney campaign (or perhaps a super PAC acting on Romney’s behalf) has taken the concept of sponsored searches on Facebook to new heights. Or maybe it’s taken it to new lows. It all depends on one’s perspective on what sort of obligations the Romney-Ryan campaign has to voters and Facebook has to its users.

Some might call it clever, others might call it unethical. For The Punditty Project, it’s simply annoying. If Punditty were an undecided voter instead of a Gary Johnson supporter, such an annoyance would be a good reason to vote against Romney rather than for him.

TPP discovered the coy misdirection when searching for “Bill Clinton” after the former president’s rousing speech Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. No doubt thousands of other American voters discovered the same thing. As the three images accompanying this report clearly show, Facebook searches for the aforementioned terms return entirely unrelated links on top of links to the subject of the searches.

In fact, TPP went to both the Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan page before realizing what was going on. Since most Facebook searches usually return the most relevant pages first, users interested in getting where they are going quickly often click on the top result without really looking that closely.

Facebook searches for “Mitt Romney” and “Paul Ryan,” at least as of the morning of Sept. 6, still returned links to pages related to the subject of the searches atop the results.

It’s no secret that Facebook hasn’t exactly soared to the top of the stock market since going public earlier this year, so the company is no doubt happy to get in on some of that Romney or Super PAC money. But does this sort of selling out to the highest bidder help the firm’s reputation and bottom line in the long run? And what does it say about the values of the Romney-Ryan campaign? It’s not exactly a forced ultrasound, but it is like being forced to try the ranch dressing before being served a salad with the oil and vinegar you prefer.

Those are questions that Facebook users will have to answer for themselves. But when you see stories in the press about how the Facebook pages of Romney and Ryan are getting more “hits” than those of Obama and Biden, you’ll know that there’s more (or would it be less?) to those reports than meets the eye.

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