Facebook’s automated systems to monitor political advertisers are blocking the wrong ads
Ads with words like 'Bush' and 'Clinton' are being taken down because they have been tagged as political ads from non-verified advertisers.
Since the advent of the ad and data-related scandals plaguing Facebook — including the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the emergence of evidence that Russia used the app to interfere in 2016 elections — the company has made sizable efforts to curb malicious content and misinformation this year.
As part of its work in this area, the company rolled out new political ad policies in May, mandating that all political advertisers must be verified on the platform and all political ads must list the person or organization that purchased the ad.
To stop nefarious characters from placing politically charged ads on the platform, Facebook uses artificial intelligence systems to help identify political and issue-based ads placed by individuals and organizations that have not been verified or fail to included “paid for” information. The systems put in place are designed to make the platform more transparent and keep content safe, but some ads are getting caught in the crosshairs and are being taken down because they have mistakenly been categorized as political or issue-based ads.
Multiple advertisers — including a lawn-mowing company, a hair waxing salon and Walmart — had ads taken down because they contained the word “Bush,” which Facebook’s automated systems associated with the political leaders President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, according to a report from Bloomberg. In all, the Bloomberg story listed seven different advertisers whose ads were taken down.
“In Clinton, Iowa, an insurance company was blocked from advertising its annual family baseball night for customers and friends, featuring a backpack drive for needy children. And in Clinton, Tennessee, Facebook’s system took down an ad for performances of ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘The Jungle Book,’ featuring actors from local high schools,” writes Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier.
If you search for these ads in Facebook’s political ad archive, you will see the ad content, its “inactive” dates and a message that the ad ran without a “Paid by” label, like this one for Platnum BBQ (an advertiser listed in the Bloomberg report whose ad was pulled because its address included the words “President Clinton”):
A Facebook representative told Bloomberg that its political ad review process is still new: “Review and enforcement won’t be perfect — we’re certainly working on ways our technology can improve detection — but it’s important that we start.”
We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment but have not received a response.
There’s no denying that Facebook has revamped its policies in a number of areas this year as it focuses efforts on fighting bad actors and removing misinformation from its app. For the first time ever, the company released a transparency report to show just how much malicious content it had removed since October 2017. Also, in addition to its new political ad policies, Facebook launched the searchable political ads archive, where users can search all political ads posted during the last seven years (which was used to find the Platnum BBQ ad above). The archive includes various information on the ads, including the campaign budget for the ad, how many users saw the ad and their age, location and gender.
Shortly after announcing it had suspended Cambridge Analytica for harvesting and exploiting user data, the company started an election-based independent research initiative to determine how social media impacts political elections.
Most recently, Facebook began including a new “Info & Ads” section for Pages that lists all ads a Page runs across Facebook’s platforms — making it possible for any user to see an ad, regardless of whether it was targeted to them or not.
Facebook isn’t the only platform putting time and efforts toward this fight. Twitter has committed to improving the health of its platform and rolled out new political ad policies in May. LinkedIn and Snapchat have also made recent changes to their ad policies. You can see a full overview of political advertising rules by platform here: “The big list of political ad policies from leading social and search platforms.
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