Vass Bednar is the founder of the newsletter Regs to Riches, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the executive director of McMaster University’s master of public policy in digital society program.
When the U.S. Senate passed a bill in December to restrict the use of TikTok on government-issued devices, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that “we are watching what the Americans are doing.” But the government does more than just watch – it spent $21-million advertising on the likes of TikTok last year.
As we scroll these days, we may notice a government-promoted post, which means that we as taxpayers have paid to post information on a platform and push it into people’s feeds. The $21-million spent last year is at the crest of a steady increase over the years, up from $7.8-million in 2017. On TikTok specifically, the Government of Canada spent $1.7-million on ads last year, up 128 per cent from the previous year.
One may feel inclined to dismiss the scuffle with TikTok in the United States – purportedly over national security concerns regarding the Chinese-owned app – in the same way we ignore an irrelevant ad. Or we may rush to follow Washington’s lead in a show of solidarity. But another conversation is pertinent, one that forces us to re-examine our comfort with the government’s heavy spending on these platforms. Not only is the expenditure questionable, the government should not actively enrich platforms that are unaligned with core policy goals.
Last year, in addition to TikTok, the government’s $21-million in ad spending also spanned platforms such as Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn and (my personal favourite) Pinterest.
That represents just a modest increase from the almost $20-million it spent in the 2020-21 fiscal year. But in the year prior to that, fiscal 2019-20, that figure was only $8.6-million. In a year, the government’s spending on social media more than doubled.
While the pandemic might explain the big increase in social-media advertising, it does not explain the choice of that medium over the years.
For that explanation, consider that some of this spending allocation may have been influenced by the Directive on the Management of Communications, which mandates that advertising expenditure must be “cost-effective,” naturally privileging social-media platforms. This directive may be an impediment to the government reallocating advertising dollars to more responsible actors.
There is a reason the U.S. government has banned TikTok from government devices aside from a few specific purposes. Many elements of the platform are problematic in terms of privacy and security and are blatantly incongruent with policy priorities. Moreover, the company behind the platform is the subject of various probes and regulatory efforts.
That is not to say that governments should not leverage these platforms as channels to convey official government business. These platforms are important places for politicians to engage with the public. Meeting people where they are can (and should) absolutely continue – without spending advertising dollars. The government must recognize that any additional financial support is a form of investment that acts as an implicit endorsement – one that is totally incompatible with its current suite of policy proposals for the digital economy.
Politicians should commit to abstaining from using taxpayer dollars to enrich these platforms. The directive for advertising expenditure should also be re-examined – yes, social media may be cheaper than traditional advertising, but when the avenue chosen conflicts with policy objectives, is it really “cost-effective”?