The first GOP primary debate of the election season was a sad affair, and not just because it played out in a virtually empty stadium. The moderators opened the evening by hammering the low-ranked participants about why they were even there, and Lindsey Graham was actively melancholy. Just being on the stage felt like bad branding, even for Carly Fiorina, whose clear triumph was tempered by the fact that she sometimes seemed to be surrounded by the company she kept.
How strange, then, to see a familiar symbol—a white lowercase letter f on a blue field, the logo of Facebook, which co-sponsored the debate with Fox News—beside each of the candidates as they stumbled through their answers. Like a social share button on a porn site, its very presence felt off-putting, possibly even wrong. It’s one thing to sponsor an awkward event, and another altogether to join in the clumsy fun.
Facebook has made a show of encouraging electoral engagement for years, as with its virtual “I Voted” stickers. It’s sponsored presidential debates before, and during tonight’s event Fox News supposedly drew debate questions from videos posted to their Facebook page. (Though as information studies professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley points out, the appearance of digital democracy may itself be a sham.)
It’s also hardly new for a tech company to pin itself to a political conversation. Stromer-Galley notes that YouTube played a similar role during some of the 2007 primary debates. It’s easy to be cynical about the rationale for such corporate participation in democratic process. When Microsoft was in the midst of a massive antitrust lawsuit in 2000, it contributed enormous sums to both the RNC’s and DNC’s respective conventions.
Still, one wonders whether Facebook’s association with tonight’s first debate might do more harm than good. It’s not a question of partisan politics. It’s that seeing the Facebook logo next to these sad-sack candidates is a little like getting a friend request from your weird uncle: It’s more likely to turn you off from the site than it is to involve you with it more fully.
Then again, Facebook probably won’t look so hot at the grownups table, either.