This dog is political: Facebook is having some teething problems with its election advertising fix
You may remember that Facebook was forced to take a look in the mirror in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, plenty of people – with some limited justification – argued that Facebook had a lot to answer for in how it policed who was allowed to post political ads on the platform. When it was proven that Russian operatives had indeed posted a variety of adverts on Facebook, the social media platform realised it could no longer boast about its ability to help political campaigns, and had to take more of an interest in who was giving it money.
Any advertiser now has to prove that they are based in the country in which the ad is placed, for a start, and all political ads are put in a searchable database, making a mysteriously opaque process a little bit more transparent. Transparency with political ads is undoubtedly a good thing: in the UK, for example, you’re only supposed to spend a set amount on local campaigning, but a Facebook ad can come from national spend, even if it’s microtargeted at you: A Voter, Crewe and Nantwich.
The trouble with transparency, however, is that it reveals the teething problems along the way. In this case, Facebook’s algorithm doesn’t seem great at telling what is and what isn’t political. The New York Times reports that Facebook has included some distinctly apolitical adverts in this political filter, including a day care centre, a vegetarian restaurant and a hair salon.
Would this be a vegetarian restaurant with a secret, hidden Pro-Trump agenda? Well, you can be the judge:
“I was wondering why that didn’t get approved,” said the restaurant’s co-owner Melanie Cochran when told of the block. “I assumed it had to do with the picture.”
But even if you see secret political messages hidden in the pit bull’s eyes, others were even less clear. The hair salon advert simply read “$100 for a full highlight or color service for all new clients,” while the day care centre merely promised to beat others’ rates. Standard small business fare.
Facebook accepts the problem, but believes it comes down to teething troubles which will be corrected with time. “These ads were mistakenly marked as political, and those decisions have been overturned,” said Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management. “These are new policies, and it’s not going to be perfect at the start.
“We think it’s better than doing nothing at all,” he added, which is certainly true, but a fairly low bar to clear, and certainly of little comfort to those whose adverts get caught in the AI net. Any ad flagged as political doesn’t see the light of day until the advertiser gets verified: a process which involves sending in photo ID, the last four digits of a social security number and a code sent via email.
It’s a drag for honest advertisers – especially those that are caught in the mix by mistake – but it’s probably even more irritating for Facebook which has had to add extra layers to a business model that was ticking along quite nicely on its own from a financial perspective. The need for hired human moderators and investment in the application process means that Mark Zuckerberg has already conceded that the venture will actually lose money at first: a financial irritation that the social network hasn’t had to contend with for some time.
Will it be worth the effort? Well, the current effort is gearing up for the 2018 US midterms. As the first nationwide American election since Trump got voted into the White House, suffice it to say that partisans on both sides will be watching Facebook very closely. While losses are never nice, they are infinitely preferable to more of the same scrutiny that Zuckerberg had to endure from Congress in the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal…