Facebook's selective enforcement

Welcome to a special bonus edition of Popular Information. Enjoy! — Judd


Donald Trump has a problem with women. Recent polling shows that 60% of women disapprove of Trump's presidency. An ABC poll found that Trump lags far behind the four leading Democratic presidential candidates among women, trailing Biden (-20), Harris (-15), Sanders (-13), and Warren (-11).

So Trump is attempting to rally support from women with Facebook ads like this:

There is just one problem: this ad, and others like it, violate Facebook's rules. 

Facebook's advertising guidelines list thirty varieties of prohibited content. Number twelve on the list prohibits ads that target "personal attributes." Facebook says ads must not include "direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person’s... gender identity." 

Trump's ad is clearly prohibited, but Facebook allowed it to run until an inquiry by Popular Information. "We've notified the campaign that the ads violate policy. They can’t continue to run unless fixed," a Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information.

Facebook promised more humans, but still relies on ineffective automated review

Last year, Facebook promised to hire 3,000 to 4,000 people to manually review political ads for violations. But the company admitted to Popular Information earlier this year that it still "relies primarily on automated tools to check ads against these policies." That system is not working. In April, Facebook allowed the Trump campaign to run a series of ads containing the phrase "Attention Ladies." The ads were not removed until Popular Information asked Facebook about the violation.  

Selective enforcement

Facebook appears willing to enforce its prohibition on ads that target “personal attributes,” which is a rule that is in place to protect Facebook. The company doesn't want users to be confronted with how much of their personal information it makes available to advertisers for targeting.But Facebook appears unwilling to vigorously enforce its rules prohibiting false and misleading content, even when it is made aware of violations. 

For example, the Trump campaign is currently running an ad that falsely claims that Democrats are advocating the repeal of the 2nd Amendment.

These ads, running in the aftermath of two gun massacres killed dozens of people, are not just in bad taste. They are also a violation of Facebook's rules, which prohibit "deceptive, false, or misleading content." There are no elected Democrats at the national level calling for "a repeal of the Second Amendment." (Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens did call for repealing the Second Amendment, but he is a Republican appointed by former Republican President Gerald Ford.)

But when I brought a similar ad to Facebook's attention in May, a Facebook spokesperson promised to get back to me but never did. So the false ad continues to run. 

A pattern of abuse

Facebook has repeatedly allowed Trump to run ads that make demonstrably false claims. 

  • Facebook allowed the Trump campaign to run an ad that falsely claimed Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang supported eliminating private insurance. 

  • Facebook allowed the Trump campaign to run multiple ads that deceptively portrayed a single endorsement from "Howard" as coming from a young man, a middle-aged man, or an old man, depending on who the ad was targeting. 

  • Facebook allowed the Trump campaign to run a false ad targeting seniors that claimed he was still considering closing the southern border "next week" when he had already publicly announced he would not close the border for at least a year. 

  • Facebook allowed the Trump campaign to run an ad scamming its supporters by claiming there was a midnight deadline to enter a contest to win the "1,000,000th red MAGA hat signed by President Trump." The ad was run every day for weeks. 

The situation is likely to get worse. The Trump campaign is learning that it can get away with nearly anything on Facebook. As election day approaches, its tactics are likely to become more brazen. 


Somehow, this newsletter has more resources available to review Trump's ads manually than Facebook, which had $16 billion in revenue over the last three months.

An informed public is the cornerstone of a functioning Democracy. Facebook's neglect is putting us at risk of a 2016 repeat.

You can make sure Popular Information has the resources to do the work that Facebook won't by becoming a paid subscriber. It's just $50 per year.

Paid subscribers get four newsletters per week. If you have any questions, drop me a line at judd@popular.info.


Like Fox, but more potent 

Fox News is Trump's best-known propaganda outlet. But it's not the most effective. That honor goes to Sinclair Broadcast Group, a network of 193 local television stations that reach 40% of the American public. 

Fox News delivers its agitprop with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Most people who tune in know exactly what they are getting. Sinclair, meanwhile, more subtly mixes in pro-Trump commentary between local news, weather, and sports. 

People inherently trust in their local news anchors. Sinclair is buying up stations and exploits that trust by forcing anchors to read deliver monologues that mimic the president, like this one blasting "fake news."

In other cases, Sinclair stations are required to run commentaries from former Trump campaign staffers like Boris Epshteyn. Here's a sample Epshteyn commentary from June:

Well, it’s official. President Trump has launched his 2020 reelection campaign. The energy behind President Trump and his “America First” movement is palpable, and if I’m a Democrat running in 2020, I am worried about my chances. That energy is quantifiable in the crowds that fill up massive stadiums. You see it on display when lines begin to form days in advance of Trump rallies. You see the energy in the unprecedented social media engagement for President Trump. You also see it in fundraising, where, according to reports, President Trump raised more in his first day running than any Democratic candidate did in their first three months.

Democrats have struggled to find a candidate who is able to hit these notes.

As 2020 approaches, Sinclair appears to be getting even more brazen. Over the weekend, numerous Sinclair stations tweeted a link to an "article" that is little more than an advertisement to purchase new Trump hats. 

The article itself isn't any better. 

Trump's online campaign store has started selling red baseball hats with the slogan 'Keep America Great' in white letters.

The slogan appears to be an updated take on 'Make America Great Again,' Trump's campaign tagline during his successful White House run in 2016.

At least one station linked directly to Trump's campaign fundraising site. The entire package is virtually indistinguishable from paid advertisements that the Trump campaign running on Facebook.

Sinclair pulled a similar stunt last month, running an article about an Arkansas farmer who carved a Trump advertisement into his cornfield.


Thanks for reading!