According to Facebook, any ad featuring the word “immigrant,” “abortion,” “taxes,” “health,” or “values” is considered political content, regardless of whether the actual advertisement itself is inherently political or not. This means any group that works with immigrants, provides abortions, deals with taxes, or healthcare may need to go through significantly more scrutiny in order to inform people of their services.
.@JuliaAngwin explains, ads "with the word 'immigrant' are being classified as a political ad” on Facebook. This means organizations that provide services to immigrants may need to pay more and go through extra scrutiny to get their content to the right users #BreakingTheNews— Open Markets (@openmarkets) June 12, 2018
This change comes as part of Facebook’s May 24 Political Ads policy, which aims to increase transparency on the site by providing users with an archive of all election-related and issue ads, all of which have to undergo a lengthy authorization process in order to ensure that the associated advertiser is properly vetted. To be authorized to run political ads, users must have a U.S. driver's license or U.S. passport, a U.S.-based residential mailing address, and a Social Security card. Which is a fine (albeit somewhat meaningless) requirement for advertisers that are clearly advocating for/against a candidate, or attempting to sway public opinion on a contentious issue in the lead up to an election, but is clearly overkill when used to police the actions of immigration lawyers looking for clients, nonprofits raising money to fight poverty, or any advertiser who mentions the word “values.”
The same goes for any individual or organization whose interests overlap with Facebook’s lengthy list of “national issues of public importance,” which includes: abortion, budget, civil rights, crime, economy, education, energy, environment, foreign policy, government reform, guns, health, immigration, infrastructure, military, poverty, social security, taxes, terrorism, and values.
Much like every other endeavor the company has undertaken, the political ads policy appears to be an all or nothing affair. Even news publishers aren’t exempt, with their ads instead going into a separate archive. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
“Removing an entire group of advertisers, in this case publishers, would go against our transparency efforts and the work we’re doing to shore up election integrity on Facebook,” wrote Campbell Brown, head of Facebook’s Global News Partnerships in a blog post on the matter. “We don’t want to be in a position where a bad actor obfuscates its identity by claiming to be a news publisher, and what’s more, we know there can be editorial content from news organizations that takes political positions. For these reasons, we’re focused on the separate archive treatment, without exemptions.”
It seems pretty likely that Facebook will take a similar stance going forward, no matter the third party group caught up in the authorized ad system. Like most of Facebook’s problems, this is an issue of scale and human moderation. The obvious answer would be to have a petition process for non-political advertisers to appeal their erroneous categorization, but that would require the company hiring actual human moderators that are capable of understanding nuance and making judgement calls, which, uh, isn’t exactly Facebook’s forte.