How Facebook Policy Hinders Political Speech

Like many who use social media and have concerns about privacy, data breaches, and viewpoint discrimination, I closely followed the testimony of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg before the Senate Intelligence Committee looking into the Russian social media disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

I was particularly interested in procedures Facebook introduced in May to vet people who want to “boost” posts containing political content, and to review political ads—which Facebook ominously categorizes as “restricted content.”

Here’s how Sandberg described the new procedures:

All politics and issue ads on Facebook and Instagram in the U.S. must be clearly labeled with a ‘Paid for by’ disclosure at the top of the ad so people can see who is paying for them. This is especially important when the Page name doesn’t match the name of the company or person funding the ad. We have also added new requirements for advertisers: Any person who wants to run one of these ads must upload an identification document and confirm their identity. They also must prove they live in the U.S. by providing a residential mailing address. We then mail a letter with a code that the person must provide to us in order to become authorized to run ads with political content.

Having had to comply with Facebook’s new advertising requirements, in my experience, Facebook’s procedures to “authorize” users to run political ads are as capricious, arbitrary and opaque as ever.

Mowing Down a Grassroots Campaign
I am active on several Facebook community pages for people who live in the East Bronx, which is in 14th congressional district. About a month ago, I noticed several threads on these pages debating whether Democrats and Republicans should join forces to vote for Joe Crowley in November—even though Crowley had been defeated in the Democratic primary by democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crowley remains on the ballot on the Working Families Party line.

The strategy makes sense for CD14, which is comprised of people who are in the middle class or working hard to get there. Despite what you may have heard from “teevee pundits,” we are swing voters, not socialists—virtually all the precincts Donald Trump won in the Bronx are in the East Bronx. I personally know several registered Democrats in my neighborhood who voted for Trump.

Likeminded Bronxites created a Facebook page as a “watercooler” for voters who believe Crowley is the only viable alternative to Ocasio-Cortez (to whom we refer ironically as #BronxBolshevik), because the GOP is running a sacrificial lamb who has no name recognition, no money, and no campaign organization.

As a page administrator, I wanted to start running ads to promote the Block Bronx Bolshevik page and the GoFundMe campaign to raise money for social media outreach—in no small part, because several times a day, Facebook imbedded mockups of ads using content from the Block Bronx Bolshevik page urging me to promote the post. So, I decided to boost a post. After I finished specifying the target audience, set the duration of the promotion and provided payment information, a notification informed me that the ad was being reviewed to determine whether it complies with its advertising policies, and that the review could take 24 hours or longer.

A couple of hours later, I received an email informing me that, “Your ad is disapproved.” The email included a link I had to click to find out the reason: “Your ad was not approved because your Page has not been authorized to run ads with political content. What to do: Complete the authorization process.” When I clicked on the link, I was prompted to log into my Facebook account, then taken to a page that described the steps I had to go through to become “authorized” to run political ads.


I had to set up two step verification with my cellphone number; provide my home address; provide the last four digits of my SSN; and upload photos of the front and back of my drivers’ license. After these steps were completed, Facebook notified me that I would receive a letter to the address I provided by snail mail (!) in seven to 10 days that provided a code and instructions on how to proceed. Good thing I found out now, and not right before Election Day.

My New York State drivers’ license is the Enhanced ID version, and I had to establish my identity and place of residence via an original birth certificate, original Social Security card, a current passport, my apartment lease and a couple of recent utility bills. The photos I uploaded leave no question that it is not an ordinary drivers’ license.

I was particularly disturbed about providing a photo of my drivers’ license to Facebook because I never post selfies and had enabled privacy settings that prevented people from tagging me in photos without my permission. Despite my best efforts, I ended up in a Facebook facial database.

While I awaited the letter, Facebook kept nudging me to run ads. Figuring that Facebook had reviewed the information I provided and realized that New York State already vetted me far more thoroughly than they could, I tried to promote the Block Bronx Bolshevik page and the GoFundMe. No go. I wasn’t “authorized.”

A week later, I got the letter. There was a code that only I, and not the another Page administrator, could use. I had to jump through a few more hoops to link the Block Bronx Bolshevik page to that code, and give Facebook the text of the “disclaimer” with which the ad would be tagged stating who paid for it.

Finally! I could start promoting the page and fundraising campaign. Not quite. I encountered an unexpected glitch.

Help! I Need Somebody!
Because this is a grassroots effort involving just one congressional district, the ideal audience to target would be adult Facebook users who live in CD14 and would be voting for one of the three candidates on the ballot. I also have the option to winnow this group down to those who regularly engage with political content on Facebook.

Previously, I could specify a the characteristics of the audience for posts I wanted to boost. But for a couple of days after receiving permission to run political advertising, I only could run ads that would be seen by a national audience. I was also unable to “edit” the audience for an ad I began promoting before Facebook OK’d me to run political ads. So I was paying Facebook to reach an audience comprised mostly of people who had no personal stake in this race and little reason to react to, comment on, or share the promoted post.

Equally alarming for a fledgling grassroots effort trying to figure out how best to get its message out, interactions with posts promoted to a national audience cost more than those served to a smaller, targeted audience.

I clicked the “Help” link and was redirected to a page asking with what I needed help. No matter how I worded my character-limited question (for instance, “unable to target political ad audience” or “political ad defaults to national audience”) the list of answers offered up were not relevant.

Finally, I was able to ask my question to an anonymous “community,” which I did even though I knew from past experience that many questions go unanswered, many are answered perfunctorily, and the answers to some require a level of technical sophistication most users lack. To be on the safe side, I also tweeted my issue to Facebook, Facebook Analytics, and Facebook Newsroom.

I doubt a human being saw the question I posted to the community, but the next day Facebook Analytics tweeted a link explaining how advertisers could report a bug. The drop down menu under the Help tab on the instructions didn’t match the drop down menu under the Help tab on the Block Bronx Bolshevik Page—which is typical of customer support on every social media site. So, I gave up—which is typical whenever I access customer support on a social media site.

Perhaps someone monitoring Facebook’s Twitter feeds alerted the right people about the issue, because the bug was fixed the day after Facebook Analytics responded to my tweet. Not that Facebook notified me. I took a chance and promoted another post and found that I was able to specify my preferred audience. When that worked out, I also tweaked the audience for the ad that had already been running for a couple of days.

While I am relieved the glitch was corrected, I was unable to promote effectively the Block Bronx Bolshevik page and the GoFundMe campaign for a couple more days. And, each time I tweak audience demographics—after receiving a notification from Facebook that the ad could be performing better—I have to check a box alerting Facebook that the ad contains political content, and it’s taken offline to be reviewed all over again.

But Wait, There’s More!
Each time I boosted original memes from the Block Bronx Bolshevik page, I opted to include a “Learn More” button (Facebook doesn’t offer a “Donate” button among the choices). Facebook automatically pulls the URL for the button using information from the About section, which included the URL of the Block Bronx Bolshevik fundraising campaign on the GoFundMe site as the external website associated with the Block Bronx Bolshevik Facebook page. But shortly after the ad was approved and went live, I was alerted by someone who had seen it in his newsfeed that the button redirected to the GoFundMe Home Page, and not to the Block Bronx Bolshevik campaign. Another unexpected glitch.

I paused all promotions so I could double-check the URL used when the ad was created, and re-enter the correct the URL if necessary. But guess what? Once an ad is created, none of the creative elements—text, image or button—can be altered in any way. This makes no sense as the ad would have been re-reviewed.

So I cancelled and deleted all promotions, and reposted a meme that had already been posted and boosted, so I could create a new ad. After an hour or so, Facebook approved the ad to run. I held my breath and clicked the “Learn More” button. Whew! It redirected to the correct page.

Election Day is but a few weeks away, and for more than 10 days I was unable to promote the Block Bronx Bolshevik page, or the GoFundMe campaign. The performance metrics Facebook provides for each ad promotion showed that several dozen people had clicked on the “Learn More” button, and there’s no telling how many of them might have contributed.

While it remains to be seen whether Facebook’s new procedures deter foreign trolls and spy agencies from influencing the outcome of an American election, I can tell Sandberg that all of Facebook’s ad policies taken together unnecessarily hinder the ability of American citizens to influence the outcome of a local election that affects them directly.

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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