When Facebook wanted to turn up the heat on Apple earlier this year in a dispute about ads and data privacy, Facebook brought some ringers to the fight. In a prominent online ad campaign, it featured several small businesses discussing how Apple’s decision to allow users to turn off data collection would not only eat away at Facebook’s trillion-dollar market cap, it would hurt the little guys, too, limiting the effectiveness of Facebook’s targeted ads.
The marketing tugged at the heartstrings, highlighting the imperilment of what seemed like ordinary mom-and-pop-type companies. But at least two of the featured small businesses, Morgan Miller Plumbing in Grandview, Missouri and Enlightened Marketing in Windsor, Colorado, actually have deep connections to Facebook, part of a familiar Big Tech strategy to use relationships with small businesses and pro-small business lobbyist groups in public-policy PR campaigns, according to new research from the non-partisan Tech Transparency Project.
“They’re portraying these as sort of an upswelling of grassroots, small business support for Big Tech rather than what they really are, which is this very highly cultivated group of mouthpieces,” says Katie Paul, the Tech Transparency Project’s director.
In the recent example of Facebook’s campaign, Morgan Miller’s founder, Jeff Morgan, says in his official bio on his company website that he has had the “privilege of visiting Facebook headquarters to share ideas.” Meanwhile, Enlightened Marketing founder Jeremy Howie belongs to Facebook’s Small Business Council, an advisory group set up by the social network to help it better understand its small business customers. Moreover, Howie on his company’s website says he’s also visited Facebook HQ several times, met with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and has “taken part in several internal Facebook beta tests.”
Moreover, the researchers point out, both Morgan Miller’s CEO, Stella Crewse, and Enlightened Marketing’s founder, Howie, sit on the board of the Connected Commerce Council. The pro-small business lobbying group, known as 3C, counts Amazon, Google and Square as official partners; Facebook was also one until recently, a 3C spokesman says. (“3C appreciates the investment of our partner companies in our education programs and general support of 3C member companies,” the lobbying group’s website reads.)
To be clear, there’s nothing illegal about creating ad campaigns that could strike some viewers as less than wholly authentic. “Facebook makes no apologies for working directly with some of the 200 million businesses on our platform to showcase how they are able to reach new customers and create jobs in their communities,” a Facebook spokesperson says. “We are public about our efforts, including creating opportunities for small businesses to give feedback and advice to us and to each other. We will continue to offer free services and affordable advertising that used to only be available to the biggest advertisers.”
But it is illustrative of the tightly coordinated inner-workings of Big Tech’s fights in these public policy battles. Back when the antitrust movement against Big Tech started up in 2019, 3C produced pro-Big Tech marketing aimed to sway Congress that featured Myles Hagan, the owner of Geoff’s Farmhouse Tables in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and several other small businesses, according to an earlier Tech Transparency Project report. “Without companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, I would not have been able to find a customer base beyond the borders of my beloved Palmetto state,” Myles Hagan said in one press release. “Small businesses like mine tend to get hurt when Congress goes after the big guys.” And sometimes these small businesses even get recycled: While Morgan Miller appeared most recently in a Facebook campaign, it also appeared in a 2020 and 2021 Google marketing campaign heralding the benefit of its tools for small businesses.
3C was founded in 2018 by Jake Ward, a former public relations executive and, briefly, a press secretary for Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican. In the past, 3C has submitted comments from small businesses to the FTC that supported digital tools from Big Tech like digital payments and video conferecing; flown other small businesses into Washington to meet with regulators and legislative staff; and assembled press statements like this one, in which argued against the government’s new antitrust cases against Big Tech and included quotes from small businesses praising those large companies.
3C, which wouldn’t comment for this story, isn’t the only firm devoted to helping Big Tech defend itself in this manner. Another active lobbying group identified by the Tech Transparency Project is the Small Business Roundtable, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded by two Democratic political operatives, Rhett Buttle and John Stanford. Last May, the Small Business Roundtable and Facebook partnered on a report, “State of Small Business.” The document cited findings drawn from a survey of 68,000 small businesses already active on Facebook. Given this background, their main conclusion isn’t too surprising, that Facebook’s online ad marketplace and other digital tools had been crucial in shoring up their failing companies. Nonetheless, Sandberg publicly promoted the report in a press release and through op-eds, and the company also used in paid advertising campaigns online.
“Big Tech has got this group of small businesses that they can tap, and they’re pre-vetted: They know they’re going to be on message,” says Paul, the Tech Transparency Project director. “It’s just very easy for them to keep going back to that well because these guys are part of the team.”