Tech

Trump's threat to pull 'billions' in internet ad spending is exaggerated

Key Points
  • In signing an executive order cracking down on "censorship" by social media platforms, President Donald Trump said the government would reconsider spending "billions of dollars" on those platforms.
  • But research suggests the government's ad spending on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is likely far smaller. 
  • Federal government advertisers tracked by Pathmatics have spent $135 million on Facebook and less than $8 million on Twitter this year. 
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office before signing an executive order related to regulating social media on May 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump's executive order could lead to attempts to punish companies such as Twitter and Google for attempting to point out factual inconsistencies in social media posts by politicians.
Doug Mills | Pool | Getty Images

When signing an executive order cracking down on "censorship" by social media platforms, President Donald Trump said the government would reconsider spending "billions of dollars" on those platforms.

But advertising spend data from marketing analytics company Pathmatics suggests that's an exaggeration. The company's tracking shows the federal government has spent about $170 million this year so far advertising on Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube.

Trump's order came Twitter decided to put fact-checking labels on the president's tweets. It targets companies granted liability protection through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Under the statute, large social media companies cannot be sued for much of the content posted by others using their sites.

The order stipulates that the government is "protecting" taxpayer dollars from being spent with platforms "that restrict free speech," and said the heads of executive departments and agencies will review their federal spending on advertising and marketing to online platforms. 

In signing the order, Trump said "The government spends billions of dollars on giving them money. They're rich enough, so we're going to be doing none of it or very little of it." 

The actual numbers are somewhat smaller, according to Pathmatics. Federal government advertisers tracked by Pathmatics have spent about $135 million on Facebook so far this year. Pathmatics said the Facebook figure includes year-to-date ad spend from 20 different government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Pathmatics said 11 agencies — including the Air Force, FDA and Census Bureau — have spent less than $28 million this year on YouTube pre-roll videos on mobile and desktop, along with display ads. 

Federal government advertisers have spent less than $8 million on Twitter in 2020. That includes spending from 15 federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, the Army, Social Security and the Marine Corps. 

Though that's still a healthy chunk of change, it's a mere blip to the tech giants.

Facebook's ad revenue was about $70 billion in 2019, while YouTube's ad revenue was about $15 billion. Twitter advertising generated nearly $3.5 billion last year. 

Facebook and YouTube didn't return a request for comment on the potential loss of that advertising revenue. Twitter declined to comment. 

— CNBC's Julia Boorstin and Stephen Desaulniers contributed to this story.

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