Discover more from BIG by Matt Stoller
Facebook Made Up to $2.9 billion from QAnon in 2020
The fight over disinformation is not about censorship, it's about dollars.
Welcome to BIG, a newsletter on the politics of monopoly power. If you’d like to sign up to receive issues over email, you can do so here.
The business model of Facebook is dangerous, and encourages addictive content and conspiratorial content. While I’m not a fan of banning people from social networks, I do think there’s an interesting question about why Facebook didn’t act to boot QAnon before the election.
One rumor is that had Facebook done so, executives were afraid of losing users to conservative social networks Parler and Gab, which would in turn limit Facebook’s ad revenue. This led to me to the question, how much money has Facebook made from its moderation choice to retain QAnon groups? Exact amounts of money are impossible to know without Facebook’s internal data, but it’s possible to do a back of the envelope guess on why Facebook did not want to purge its networks of conspiracy theories.
According to NPR, 17% of Americans believe in the core tenet of QAnon. Let’s say that half of them, or 8% of Americans, had moved on from Facebook, as happened to MySpace when a more compelling social network emerged. As of 2020, Facebook had 258 million users in the U.S. and Canada, and its average revenue per user was $163.86. Let’s pretend no one in Canada buys into QAnon, so we’re talking 220 million American Facebook users. That means Facebook feared losing 17.6 million users if they banned QAnon content, which is a loss of roughly $2.9 billion of ad revenue in 2020.
Obviously this calculation is rough, and it’s not clear that anyone would leave Facebook if it banned QAnon. Still, my guess is that someone at Facebook made the calculation about how much such a move *might* cost them. It would be irresponsible not to, considering that the firm told its investors that its user base in the U.S. declined slightly in the third and fourth quarters, and that declining engagement of users is an investment risk. “A number of other social networking companies that achieved early popularity have since seen their active user bases or levels of engagement decline,” Facebook’s 2020 annual report warned, “in some cases precipitously.”
Facebook has substantial market power, so I doubt they’d lose users if they did take a more aggressive line on moderation. But that said, it’s a paranoid company with an obsessive desire to retain user engagement. And they probably figured, why take the risk?