UPDATE: Facebook admits it ran hundreds of Trump campaign ads that violate Facebook rules
Facebook took them offline about 12 hours after Popular Information's report
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Melania Trump’s birthday is April 26. For weeks, the Trump campaign has used the First Lady’s big day — she’ll be 49 — to build their email list. They’ve run thousands of ads urging Facebook users to sign a “card to wish Melania a Happy Birthday!”
But today the Trump campaign is doing 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 an interesting choice.
But these ads 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 users’ age.
Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about how it enforces its rules about prohibited content and what actions it was prepared to take with respect to the Trump campaign. Political ads are supposed to receive enhanced scrutiny.
Although targeting women seems relatively innocuous, the Trump campaign bragged about their ability in 2016 to target African-Americans with messages to depress turnout. If the Trump campaign can get away with this, who knows what’s next.
UPDATE (4/26, 7AM): About 12 hours after this report was published, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Popular Information that 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.
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 their 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 to breaking the rules is being told to fix the issue. There is no incentive to follow the rules in the first place.
Facebook brought in over $15 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2019 and has over 35,000 employees. It contends that it does not have the resources to actually review Trump campaign ads before publication. Popular Information, which has a staff of one and significantly less revenue, is somehow better resourced to conduct a manual review of these ads.
Trump has made it clear that Facebook will be at the center of his reelection strategy. Trump even hired the guy in charge of his 2016 Facebook strategy, Brad Parscale, to be his 2020 campaign manager.
Yet there seems to be very little scrutiny in how Trump is spending his money on Facebook.
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