Saturday, June 2, 2018

Facebook’s Ad Rules Forcing News Outlets to Register as Political Advertisers

Last Thursday, Showtime put out a string of Trailers promoting its new Documentary series The Fourth Estate, which follows a Group of New York Times Reporters as they Cover the White House. The Ads were eye-catching and edited fast to make the work of Journalism look as dramatic as possible. But when they reached Facebook, something unusual happened: after taking more than $1,000 to Promote the Videos, Facebook sent Showtime’s Money back. The Ads were too Political to Run without further Verification.

You can see the Proof on Facebook’s new Political Ads Database, where Showtime’s Trailers are currently listed as Inactive. “After the ad started running, we determined that the ad had political content and required the label,” the Notice reads. “The ad was taken down.”

This is part of a Wave of Ad Suspension that began when Facebook started Enforcing New Rules for Political Advertising last week. Aimed at preventing Political Interference from Russian Trolls and other Foreign Groups, the Rules require Strict Verification for any Account promoting Political Content. That Verification typically requires a Government-issued ID to trigger a Verification Code sent to a U.S. Mailing Address, a Process that takes several days and significant Coordination.

The system is meant to be a Minor Inconvenience for a Political Campaign, but those same Rules also apply to Neutral News Content, and they seem to have taken many Publications by surprise. A limited Search by The Verge found 85 News Posts that had fallen Afoul of the Rules in the first Week of Enforcement, including seemingly innocuous stories on Graduation Speeches or the British Royal Family. “Your plan... blurs the lines between real reporting and propaganda.”

The Blocks have already affected some of the largest Media Organizations on the web. A Vice News post on Trump’s Canceled North Korea Summit fell victim to the same Filter as the Showtime Ads. Ultimately it was Pulled from Promotion after Facebook Classified the Ads as Political. The same mechanism Canceled Promotion for a Vox Podcast on a recent Labor Ruling by the Supreme Court, as well as an Asia Times Op-Ed defending America’s Diplomatic posture toward Iran.

The idea that News Outlets should Verify themselves as Political Advertisers has proven controversial. When Facebook first proposed its Guidelines, the Company met with serious objections from the News Media Alliance, a Trade Group representing nearly 2,000 News Organizations. “Your plan to group quality publishers alongside political advocacy, which the ad archive will do, dangerously blurs the lines between real reporting and propaganda,” the Group wrote to Zuckerberg in an Open Letter. “It is a fundamental mischaracterization of journalism that threatens to undermine its ability to play its critical role in society as the fourth estate.”

A subsequent Bloomberg Report described Facebook as shaken by the criticism but unsure of how to respond.
Some Media Companies are already refusing to Register in light the News Media Alliance’s objections, including Vox Media, Parent Company of both Vox and The Verge. “Our editorial networks cover many national issues – including civil rights, immigration and health care – that our journalists rigorously report as news, not as issue advocacy,” the Spokesperson said in response to the Vox Podcast Block.

Reached for Comment by The Verge, Facebook acknowledged some Mistakes in the current iteration of its system. “Enforcement is never perfect at launch, but that’s why we have processes in place for people and advertisers to help us improve,” said Rob Leathern, Director of Product Management at Facebook. “The community can find and report ads that don’t have the label but should, and advertisers can appeal ads that are in the archive but shouldn’t be there. This also underscores why we launched these tools: to bring more ads transparency to the platform and encourage people to ask questions.” “Enforcement is never perfect at launch.”

Since the New Restrictions only affect Ads, the most impacted Publications tend to be the ones most comfortable paying Facebook to Promote Content. As a result, a significant number of Viral Videos have been subject to the Rules, even ones with no apparent Political Message. A New York-based Publication called Brut has seen at least Seven of its Videos blocked from Promotion under the New Policy, including footage of a viral Balcony Rescue in Paris and a Young Woman being Assaulted by Police in New Jersey. A number of Pages from NowThis and Business Insider have also seen Promotions Blocked.

One of the most unusual Cases is News Break, a Santa Clara-based Outlet that aggregates Local News to an App and more than 2 million Facebook followers. More than 37 News Break Post Promotions have been Blocked for Political Content, including Posts on a New Jersey School Bus Accident and a High School Bomb Threat in Texas. Largely pulled from Local Police Blotters, none of the Posts mention Political Parties or Candidates.

More straightforwardly Partisan Sites have also been drawn into the mix. The Right-Wing Outlet Newsmax has had 11 different Promotions Blocked by the Policy, all of them ads for Writer Jerome Corsi’s Book Killing the Deep State. Two Washington Examiner Posts, both covering Elon Musk’s Public Criticism of the Media, also fell Victim to the Policy.

One of the few Sites to Successfully navigate the Policy has been Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, which had 10 Promotions Blocked by the Policy before apparently Clearing Facebook’s Verification Process on May 30th. Since then, the Site has run several successful Promotions under the New Political Disclosure Rules. “Everything we’ve tried to do in the past couple days has just been shut down.”

Other Ads were Blocked before making it to the Database. Melville House Publisher Dennis Johnson says the New Rules have stopped his Company from Promoting its New Trump / Russia Book on Facebook. Trump / Russia seems to trigger Facebook’s First Line of Automated Filters, so the Ads are Blocked as Political before even being placed on the Site. As a result, they don’t show up in Facebook’s Political Ad Database, which shows only Ads that have appeared on Facebook.

Johnson says the Block has been a significant problem for the Book’s Marketing Campaign. The Company is currently in the process of Verifying itself as a Political Advertiser, but it has been unable to place any Facebook Ads for the Book until the Verification goes through. “We’re not finding any ways around it, nothing that makes it possible for us to talk about this book in an ad,” Johnson says. “Everything we’ve tried to do in the past couple days has just been shut down.”

Part of the Confusion stems from Facebook’s Broad Standards for what counts as Political. The Platform’s Official Policy includes “national issues of public importance” like “economy,” “immigration,” and “health.” It’s intended to set a wide enough Net to Catch Non-Campaign Ads that nonetheless influence Public Discourse. The List also includes “crime,” which may explain many of the News Break Blocks. As long as News Outlets are covering Issues of Public Importance, it’s hard to see how they can avoid the Policy as Written.

In other instances, even the mention of an Election seems to trigger the system. In one Case, a promoted Post from a Hawaiian Fusion Restaurant was Classified as Political because it asked Fans to Vote in a Local Paper’s “Best of Maui” Poll.

For Publishers like Melville House that rely on Facebook to reach potential Customers, the frustration comes with real Consequences. “It just seems dumb, doesn’t it,” Johnson told The Verge, “that Facebook can’t tell the difference between us and a Russian troll?”

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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