More than half of the money a state agency has spent on Facebook ads targets supporters of Tennessee’s top Republican politicians, with none spent on Democrats, according to WSMV-TV. The report prompted a press release protests from state Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and TNDP Chair Mary Mancini.
The mission of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is to attract businesses to the Volunteer State, as well as to let the community know what’s going on. One of several marketing strategies involves paying for ads on Facebook.
What pops up in a user’s newsfeed may seem random, but Facebook can target users based on interests. And if you “like” certain officeholders, there’s a good chance you’ll see updates from the TDECD Facebook page.
The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is a nonpartisan state agency, except they’ve paid more than $18,000 to target people who “like” Gov. Bill Haslam, Sen. Bob Corker or Sen. Lamar Alexander. Not a dime was spent on targeting fans of Democrats.
That fact troubles Bruce Oppenheimer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
“I think the real question is more so, who’s not getting the information who deserves to get the information?” Oppenheimer said.
… So why would an agency that’s interested in developing businesses and creating jobs not cast a wide net to garner fans of all political parties? The I-Team sat down with TDECD Commissioner Randy Boyd.
“Should politics be involved in a department that’s supposed to be apolitical?” asked reporter Alanna Autler.
“Politics is a pretty broad word,” Boyd said. “We have to work with the legislature and the legislature is always creating new legislation affecting things we do, and they are political. So in that sense, the politics of new laws and legislation do affect what our development and any department does.”
… Many of the ads pushed for more Facebook likes. Others were more specific, such as a post around Valentine’s Day 2014 that targeted users who like “Bill Haslam or chocolate.” But of all the metrics the department used, none mentioned Democrats.
“I think the blatancy of this may be a little different. Probably the thought is, no one is really going to find out about this sort of targeting,” Oppenheimer said. The professor said the strategy also resembles microtargeting, a tactic used during political campaigns to reach voters.
“It looks like something a campaign or somebody who’s thinking of running for office [would do],” Oppenheimer said. “It’s an attempt to get your message out and manage what you’re doing and who you are.”
Political watchers say there’s talk in Republican spheres about Commissioner Boyd running for governor.
Note: The Harris commentary is below.
News release from Senate Democratic Caucus
NASHVILLE – Senate Minority Lee Harris called for an end to using taxpayer funds for political social media posts after a TV station reported on the practice at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.
“We should not use state money for political purposes,” Sen. Harris said. “Even the appearance of using state money for political purposes should be scrupulously avoided. Let’s recall, we saw this type of government spending on a politically-inspired ALEC conference that’s coming to Tennessee. I think overall this ECD program was not the smartest move. I hope that’s acknowledged, and this stops.
According to the report by WSMV, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development spent $18,000 on Facebook posts targeting users who liked Republican political leaders. None of the posts targeted users who liked Democrats.
From Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini:
“Over the last five years Republicans have eliminated 11 oversight committees and over the past few months have given themselves absolute power over the very state agencies that are supposed to keep our families and communities safe and strong. And today we find out that a department that reports directly to Governor Haslam spent thousands of state tax dollars on advertisements targeting only Republicans. As I mentioned this morning at my press conference, Tennessee Republicans are unethical, self-serving, extremists and these are just two more examples.”