Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Facebook’s new political ad-buying rules are sabotaging grassroots candidates in June’s first primaries—and hurting ballot initiatives with upcoming filing deadlines—according to conservatives and progressives who say their campaigns are being suppressed. But Facebook says these campaigns weren’t paying attention or following instructions to verify their identities.
“The irony is their intention—or what they say [is] their intention—was to keep Russians and outsiders from meddling in our federal elections. But that’s in effect what they have done, by basically locking the door on the challengers and allowing the incumbents to continue to run their ads,” said E. Brian Rose, a Republican challenger in Mississippi’s fourth U.S. House district who has a June 5 primary. “I’m not one to whine about fairness, because life isn’t fair. But where is the fairness in that? They try to keep outsiders from meddling, but in a sense that’s what they’re doing themselves.”
“Look at what Facebook is up to these days. After boosting several ads all year, now we are being denied,” wrote Jovanka Beckles, vice mayor of Richmond, a northern California city, running for State Assembly as a Democrat, on her Facebook page. “One week before the [June 5 primary] election they start playing this game ’cause they know grassroots candidates rely on this affordable method of advertising. Wow. Really, FB?”
“It’s telling—the fact that this is something that they are just now doing and hadn’t been doing all year. We’ve been boosting ads since last year—May or June,” Beckles said by phone on Thursday. “Why didn’t they ask me for this verification a month ago? Two months ago? Because you know what, they just told us this on Tuesday.”
It’s not just grassroots candidates on the left and right whose campaigns are being hurt. In San Francisco, virtually Facebook’s backyard, a just-announced ballot initiative offering an innovative affordable housing plan also was hit, undercutting its opening effort to gather signatures to get on the fall’s ballot. Its petitions must be filed by early July.
“Our grassroots campaign never received any notifications before the new political ad requirements took effect—and we are definitely not the only campaign who experienced this, either,” said Demie Cheng, social media manager of the proposed San Francisco Community Housing Act. “In general, if an important feature or change in Terms of Service takes place, it’s a good idea to send out multiple notifications in order to alert users clearly about what will happen, and when it would happen.”
“Moreover, when any new feature breaks or seriously hinders user experience, engineers need to turn that feature off, and reevaluate their approach before re-enabling,” Cheng continued. “There needs to be a contingency plan in place to ensure that unintended consequences are minimized, and can be promptly resolved if needed. The ability to pause or reverse any major change is simply best practice.”
But Facebook isn’t budging, according to Rose and Cheng—which Facebook affirmed.
“Multiple efforts were made to provide notifications to campaigns regarding the new notification process,” a spokesman said on background Thursday, citing its blogs, online training, new Help Center, statements to the press and at conferences, open enrollment starting April 23 and an early May email to “individuals who were admins/connected to likely political pages reminding of them need to go through the authorizations process.”
But Rose, Beckles and Cheng said they weren’t contacted.
While Rose and Cheng said Facebook representatives subsequently returned their emails and calls, listened, and said they would take their complaints upstairs, the platform has not modified its advertiser verification process to accommodate candidates with June races and deadlines. That’s left the candidates without a communication tool they not only planned on, but, in Rose’s case, developed with Facebook’s help.
“This was a major part of our campaign effort,” he said. “However, it is not the end-all. We adapt and overcome. And we are now moving the money that was allocated for this final push to other online venues and some radio advertising as well.”
“Help us get the word out about our corporate-free message and people power,” Beckles wrote to her Facebook friends.
More Powerful Than Congress
Facebook’s new political advertising rules were devised to thwart meddling by outsiders after Russian intelligence agents used its platform to post divisive propaganda in the 2016 presidential election. Many of those posts were what are known in campaign legal circles as issue ads; a specific tactic where the wording doesn’t refer to candidates in certain ways—saying ‘vote for’ or ‘vote against,’ for example. Thus, these ads evade federal regulation requiring disclosure of who is behind and paying for them.
Congress has passed laws regulating issue ads, most notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold law. But courts rolled back key features of the law as being unconstitutional for limiting political communications—the highest form of protected First Amendment speech. Until 2016’s scandal on Russian interference broke, the regulatory landscape for political advertising was mostly static. (The McCain-Feingold law also exempted online electioneering from regulation.)
But Facebook, facing criticism in Congress and abroad for the way propagandists had used its platform, said it would regulate all political ads by requiring advertising buyers be identified and verified before posting the ad. It could do this, unlike federal regulators, because it is a private company and its private user agreements—its terms of service—do not have to be constitutional. It—like other social media platforms—can censor or postpone posting whatever content it wants, when it wants, and for how long it wants.
“The terms of service and the community guidelines that Twitter, Facebook, and Google have all would violate the First Amendment if they were legislated by Congress, right?” explained Stanford Law School’s Nate Persily earlier this year when briefing the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, a high-powered effort to analyze how cyberspace was changing American elections. “These are private firms. Their rules on hate speech, their rules on obscenity, incitement, intellectual property violation, and the like… All of those are not the constitutional standards and there are reasons for that.”
This new landscape, where Facebook has taken it upon itself to police political content, was not unexpected. Election scholars have been predicting that a private company would emerge in this role as the internet grew in reach. But the fact that Facebook is now a more powerful political referee than the current Congress can be seen in June’s first primaries as its rules, whether delivered with clarity or not, are abruptly shutting off legitimate candidates who have been forced to scramble in response.
“I think that the most important thing for our campaign has been the miles that we put on. We have a large district of 13 and one-half counties. And we have just put the miles on,” said Rose. “Every single day we are at a different corner of the county meeting with voters and that’s something that Facebook can’t take away from us.”
A Congressional Challenger Ambushed
Reached a week before his June 5 primary, Rose recounted how he had planned his voter outreach and messaging arc in collaboration with Facebook. His account transcends party labels—and, like Beckles in California’s 15th Assembly district race, or the affordable housing advocates in San Francisco who are not part of the established housing sector, it is a grassroots challenger, which Facebook’s new rules are apparently suppressing.
“We don’t have the money that the incumbent has to challenge him, to square off with him on television advertising or radio advertising,” Rose said, referring to Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-MS, who was first elected to Congress in 2010. “So we have decided that online is our best way to get the most audience interaction. And, of course, Facebook is the best way we can engage.”
Facebook doesn’t just appeal to grassroots candidates because it is relatively cheap—which it is. Its online advertising also offers something that television and radio does not, an ability to micro-target recipients with more varied messaging than broadcasting.
“This has been a long campaign,” Rose said. “We announced a week after the incumbent won his re-election in November of 2016. That was a week after President Trump was elected. We spoke with Facebook ad representatives and they convinced us that the best thing for our buck would be in social media. So the idea was to build up engagement with an audience over the next year and one-half period, leading up to that final 10, 12 days before the primary election, where we would bombard our engaged audience with 500-to-600 ads.”
Running that many ads has no corollary in traditional broadcasting. A generation ago, congressional challengers would be lucky to run a dozen different TV ads. But the low cost, targeting and chance to send finely tuned messages to voters in defined electorates is exactly why campaigns have turned to Facebook and to other social media. Rose said he had begun his final media blitz and then Facebook pulled the plug—by imposing a verification process based on getting a code delivered by the post office.
“We began this process on May 25th, and started launching some ads,” Rose said. “They went off in the morning and then at around 1 o’clock on that afternoon, we were told that we were no longer authorized to run advertisements. So it prompted us to verify my identity, which I did. And then it told me that I would receive a postcard or a letter in the mail that had a confirmation code, but it would take 12-to-14 days to arrive.”
“I reached out to Facebook to say that doesn’t work, because my election is in 10 days,” he continued—pointing to the same obstacle cited by Beckles, the Assembly California candidate. “And they said, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ ‘We’re gonna run this up the chain of command.’ I kept hearing back from different individuals, through e-mails, saying, ‘We’re working on it. We’ll try to resolve the issue for you.’ I then had a live chat, on Facebook, with somebody just yesterday [Wednesday], who admitted that they did not contact us ahead of time.”
“However, a lot of the incumbents were contacted ahead of time,” Rose continued. “You can see that by going to the new Facebook database and it shows all advertisements. So you see all these incumbents they worked with ahead of time. There was no lapse in their advertising, yet the challengers seem to be the ones left out in the cold.”
Rose said he kept pushing at Facebook’s representatives, one of whom admitted that they didn’t notify all of their clients in advance of this new policy. “Yesterday [Tuesday], and I’m quoting from his message, he says, ‘I hope you understand the desire behind the level of verification. I know this all came short notice and with no personal notification for the candidates affected.’”
Cheng, the social media manager of the proposed San Francisco Community Housing Act, said they were also cut off without notice. She said she understands why Facebook wants to combat propagandistic uses of its platform, but said there were better ways to execute this—especially without randomly penalizing grassroots campaigns.
“Disclosures and transparency are of course important, but there has to be a more streamlined way of achieving this, without hurting grassroots campaigns that are honestly trying to play by the rules,” she said. “Grassroots campaigns are particularly vulnerable, because for them, Facebook is one of the few affordable and accessible options to get their word out to a large viewership.”
“This is not right-left. This is participatory or not,” said Rose, who talked at length why this debacle has been so frustrating on so many levels. To begin with, Facebook violated the trust he built a major part of his campaign plan on. He never expected that Facebook, which markets itself as a political campaign tool, would pull the plug on him, offering absolutely no recourse to someone who was a known client.
“They have sections of their website specifically for political campaigns to get tips and tricks on how to advertise to the voters,” he said. “In fact, when you go to target an ad, you don’t have to target it by city when you are a congressional candidate, I can target it the Mississippi Fourth Congressional district. I don’t have to type in every city or every county. I can just say Mississippi Fourth Congressional district and it will automatically broadcast my ads to the district.”
Rose, a conservative, is no fan of government regulation. But, going deeper, he felt that Facebook’s mishandling of his campaign’s final messaging was stepping on fundamental constitutional rights: censoring his political speech, and thus impinging on a candidate’s efforts to freely associate with a like-minded public. And then ducking the responsibility for botching this new political ad verification process—or fixing it, he said.
“They are pretending they are not a publisher,” Rose said. “Certain aspects of their company they hide behind the Computer Decency Act by saying we are not responsible for what user generated content is published on our site. But then they are also admitting that they are proofreading and they are making sure that ads, or publications of politicians, fit their standards. So, which is it? Are you a company that has user-generated content or are you a publisher?”
Improvising or Best Practices
Candidates like Rose and Beckles feel the most immediate pressures from Facebook’s new political advertiser rules—as their primaries are next week. But activists with July deadlines, like those behind San Francisco’s affordable housing measure, say Facebook’s rollout of its new advertiser rules are not just inadvertently suppressing their campaigns, but they are breaking some basic tech sector protocols about being user-friendly.
“The timing of this roll-out was so ill-advised, considering high-stakes elections are just around the corner, on June 5th,” Cheng said. “Delays can seriously impact the outcomes of elections, especially when campaigns expect a high level of convenience on the platform.”
But Facebook is not backing down nor accommodating candidates and campaigns that have fallen through the cracks in their new system. As a spokesman said on background in the opening line of an email that detailed all the steps they have taken, “All advertisers running political or issue ads on Facebook have to go through the authorization process.”
When asked in a response email, “so… you’re saying all these campaigns should have been paying better attention, should have known what to do, and done it,” the next reply was, “I’d point back to what I shared below.” In other words, they created a new system, one that privatizes a very public process—political communications—and if something is not working as anticipated or planned, the users, in this case candidates, are to blame.
“Wow. Really?” said Beckles when told of Facebook’s response. “Because you know what? They just told us this on Tuesday. And that’s seven days before the election. They had been approving all of our ads up until this week. And so, we’ve been doing it. So we went ahead and tried to boost one of them, and they are like, ‘No, you have to go through your verification codes and it takes about seven days, because they have to verify your home address and stuff like that.’ And we’re like, ‘Seven days? What? The election is in six days.’”
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).