The last three years have not been good for Facebook. Things started going off the rails after the 2016 election when people discovered that Facebook let its platform be used to disseminate pro-Trump misinformation.
Some of the misinformation was spread by third-party bad actors, like Russia. But some of the shadiest stuff was done by the Trump campaign itself. In an interview with Bloomberg days before the election, the campaign bragged that it was using Facebook to suppress African- American votes in crucial states.
In the aftermath, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to fix the problem. Usually, he sets an ambitious personal development goal each year, like learning Mandarin. In 2018, Zuckerberg resolved to fix the company.
So you'd think, as we barrel toward 2020, that Facebook would have its act together this time. You would be wrong. Facebook has launched an ad library where you can view political ads being run on Facebook by Trump and other campaigns. More transparency is a good thing.
But this newsletter, with a staff of one, identified hundreds of ads from the Trump campaign that violated Facebook's ad policies. Facebook removed the ads only after I brought them to its attention.
The company also said that it is not using humans to review political ads. Instead, Facebook relies on a computer algorithm to enforce the rules. The algorithm is not working.
Facebook is a company valued at over $500 billion. It has over 35,000 employees and brought in $15 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2019. But somehow, this newsletter has more resources available to review political ads manually.
An informed public is the cornerstone of a functioning Democracy. Facebook's neglect is putting us at risk of a 2016 repeat.
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Rage Against the Machine
Melania Trump’s birthday was April 26. For weeks, the Trump campaign has used the First Lady’s big day — she turned 49 — to build its email list. It has run thousands of ads urging Facebook users to sign a “card to wish Melania a Happy Birthday!”
But on Thursday, the Trump campaign did something different. It has produced hundreds of ads targeting women in practically every city in Texas.
These ads, accessible through the Facebook political ad library, go on and on and on. The campaign appears to be leaning on Melania to bolster Trump’s low support with women. Focusing on Texas, which some Democrats believe is the next swing state, is also a notable choice.
Where we're going, there are no rules
But the Trump campaign's birthday ads for Melania also explicitly violate Facebook’s ad guidelines because they include “prohibited content.” Facebook’s rules prohibit ads that reference the “personal attributes” of the people being targeted.
“Ads must not contain content that asserts or implies personal attributes” Facebook’s rules state, including “direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person’s… gender identity.” The phrase “Attention Ladies” at the beginning of each of these ads violates the guidelines.
Here’s an example Facebook provides about prohibited phrases identifying a user's age.
Although targeting women in these kinds of ads seems relatively innocuous, recall that the Trump campaign previously used Facebook to target African-Americans and depress turnout.
About 12 hours after Popular Information contacted Facebook, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed hundreds of ads from the Trump campaign violated Facebook policies. Facebook said it had taken the ads offline.
We don’t allow ads that imply or call out certain characteristics, like someone’s gender. We have notified the campaign to fix these ads in order for them to run.
The ads in question said: "Melania's birthday is in 1 day, and I want you to do something fantastic for her." In other words, these were designed to run on April 25 in Texas. By the time Facebook responded to the issue, the ads only had a few hours of their useful life remaining.
Zero incentive for fair play
Asked what Facebook is doing to prevent political ads that violate its policies from running in the first place, a spokesperson said, "we’re always looking to improve our enforcement, which is never perfect." The company acknowledges that the ads were "subject to Facebook's ad review system, which relies primarily on automated tools to check ads against these policies."
The Trump campaign did remove the explicit gender targeting of its Texas ads sometime on Thursday evening, allowing the ads to resume.
A new set of ads targeting women in Missouri now targets "Ladies… and Gentlemen."
But what is the point of the Facebook policies if they are not enforced in advance of publication? As it stands, in the unlikely circumstance that you are caught, the only consequence of breaking the rules is being told to fix the issue. There is no incentive to follow the rules in the first place.
Howard broke the rules, but nothing happened
One set of recent Facebook ads by the Trump campaign features testimonials from several Trump supporters. One ad features "Howard from New Mexico." As soft music plays, Howard says, "Sir, you have really inspired me and brought back my faith in this great nation. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for all the work you are doing." A video depicts an older African-American man smiling broadly.
Except that the man pictured is not Howard. How do I know? For a split second at the beginning of the video, in tiny print, the ad includes the following disclaimer: "Actual Testimonial. Actor Portrayal." In many other versions of the ad, Howard is portrayed as a young African-American man engrossed in his cell phone. Howard is still from New Mexico and still has the same quote about Trump.
The ads featuring Howard, and several similar sets of ads featuring women of different ages, clearly violate Facebook's rule against ads with "deceptive, false, or misleading content." Pretending that Howard is simultaneously an older man and a younger is deceptive and misleading. The ads, however, were never removed or flagged by Facebook.
The border hoax
Another recent Trump campaign ad on Facebook targets seniors with a blatantly false promise. The ad, which launched on Tuesday, focuses on a quote from Trump. "If Mexico doesn't immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the border, or large sections of the border, next week."
There is a major problem with the appeal, however. Trump delivered the promise in a series of tweets on March 29, weeks before the ad started running.
Since that time, Mexico has not stopped "all illegal immigration" and Trump has not closed the border. In other words, Trump is fundraising off of a promise that he has already broken.
While Trump is telling potential donors that he might close the border "next week," he has publicly stated he will not close the border for the next year.
"We're going to give them a one-year warning, and if the drugs don't stop or (are) largely stopped, we're going to put tariffs on Mexico and products, in particular, the cars ... and if that doesn't stop the drugs, we close the border," Trump said on April 4.
This false and misleading ad was never removed by Facebook.
Things will get worse
The 2020 campaign is just beginning. Facebook is central to any campaign strategy and the tactics employed by the Trump campaign are likely to get much worse.
Facebook is asleep at the wheel.
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