It’s All About The Money, Honey: Facebook’s Arbitrary Ad Policies

Facebook's Arbitrary Ad Policies

In this blog we begin to unpack some of Facebook’s Arbitrary Ad Policies, especially as they relate to political ads.

As many digital marketers may have discovered in recent months, there’s a new ad policy in Facebook Town, and its name is “Special Ad Categories”.

For many of us, the immediate assumption was that we were being singled out for something awesome – possibly getting access to a new beta, or some fancy targeting capabilities!

However, we soon realized this was simply a new set of restrictions aimed at curbing unlawful discrimination in Facebook advertising – namely, for businesses in credit, employment, housing, or other related industries. Essentially, these brands must now choose from a much more limited range of audience targeting options in their advertising.

And, it’s not unfounded: after Facebook users filed discrimination complaints against 66 different employers last year (including Facebook itself), the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought down the hammer. They judged that seven very large US corporations had been engaging in gender and age discrimination in their recruiting practices by posting job ads which only targeted men and younger workers. This clearly violates both the Civil Rights Act and Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

While these new targeting limitations may be frustrating for many advertisers in said categories, it’s understandable why the platform would wish to aim for more ethical practices. That is so nice of them! And it would make sense that all of these fancy new policies should apply to every advertiser across the platform, right?

Who is Exempt?

Oddly enough, just last week, it appeared the social networking site decided to rob Peter a tiny little bit to pay Paul: in the form of thinning out its policies on “misinformation”, and exempting politicians and political parties from the platform’s fact-checking requirements.

Taking a look at the “Prohibited Content” in Facebook’s Advertising Policies, you’ll find common restrictions such as “Illegal Products or Services”, “Adult Content”, and the aforementioned “Discriminatory Practices” called out in the lengthy list of content that is apparently not allowed in any ads on their platform.

Further along in the list are a few more interesting additions, such as “Misinformationand “Controversial Content:

Controversial Content: “Ads must not contain content that exploits controversial political or social issues for commercial purposes.”

Misinformation: “Facebook prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise. Advertisers that repeatedly post information deemed to be false may have restrictions placed on their ability to advertise on Facebook.”

Until recently, this “Misinformation” policy actually included the distinction that:

“…ads, landing pages, and business practices must not contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods.”

According to Judd Legum – American journalist, political staffer, and creator of the “Popular Information” newsletter – an inquiry placed with Facebook about their recent policy changes received a response stating that its policies were “not in violation because political ads are unable to be fact checked”. Quite a change of tune from its previous policy, in which ads were absolutely not allowed to contain any “false or misleading” information, political ads included.

What’s even more odd is the timing, as a certain politician decided to dramatically increase their spending on Facebook ads to the tune of +$1.2M. Another politician on the other end of the spectrum has also been seen linking their ads to news stories, with altered headlines and omitted words – in what some are saying amounts to “leading [users] to think this is some quasi-endorsement when it isn’t.

Facebook has clearly anticipated these types of situations occurring, and graciously provided a handy, secondary set of guidelines for “Ads About Social Issues, Elections or Politics, in which they talk about the fact that they’re currently working on an “authorization process” for these types of advertisers, which is “gradually rolling out” in some countries. 

In other words: We made up some happy ideas to calm y’all down, and they might happen sometime, eventually. But probably not. Love, Facebook’s arbitrary ad policies. 

Is this all a bit sad? Yes. Slightly immoral? Maybe. But, technically, they’re not breaking any laws here; there is currently no federal regulation enforcing truth in political advertising.

What Does The Law Say?

As of 2014, there are 27 states that prohibit certain kinds of false statements made in political advertising – including lying about endorsements, veteran status, or incumbency. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission requires truth in advertising claims – for commercial businesses. Not political ads.

In the wake of the Russian social media interference in the 2016 presidential election, some states such as California, New York, Maryland and Washington have attempted to implement laws regarding transparency in digital political advertisements – but these types of initiatives are often curbed by the First Amendment in court.

So what’s a free country to do? Can’t a lying politician do just as much harm to citizens as a lying business?

Without government regulations in place to ensure truth in political advertising, is it the job of private media businesses such as Facebook to say no to millions of dollars in revenue, step up and prevent this type of unethical activity from occurring on their platforms?

Or does it come down to the consumers to show these businesses their displeasure with their practices via their wallets and their actions? Could that even make a difference at this point?

While most decent human beings are likely in favor of any private business’ initiatives to tackle issues such as discrimination and misinformation at their own hands, it is a bit frustrating – and futile – when these practices disproportionately affect some and not all. As small businesses and brands suffer the consequences of these unethical practices perpetrated by others, politicians now essentially have free reign of the platform. Many would argue that the large corporate donors likely funding their ads are indirectly benefiting, as well.

Conclusion

Social media and the digital landscape are still young; the rules and regulations for their usage are largely undetermined. Until Facebook’s arbitrary ad policies are more clearly defined, we’re all playing in the wild west – and it can feel like it’s everyone for themselves. 

Our motto at Augurian is to do our research, have confidence in our work, and be prepared for change. You’re not alone out there – and we can help.

 

What are your thoughts on the digital landscape? How do you think the future of platforms like Facebook will look? Do you have confidence in your business’ place in this crazy digital world? Let us know.