Facebook says blocking Homeland Security ads as “political” was a “mistake”

Facebook apologized for the error.

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There was a political storm in the Fall, around a Trump campaign ad on Facebook that the Democratic camp denounced as false, and the social media giant refused to remove anyway. It soon developed into a full-blown crisis complete with Congressional grilling of CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

That storm seems to have subsided – but not before it scared Twitter out of the political ad business completely. It now appears that Facebook’s existing rules on political ads are problematic for more reasons than one as the platform is using its favorite way of dealing with problems of filtering and moderation: by letting algorithms do it for them.

But as we know from numerous cases of unreasonably censored content and blocked accounts on Facebook, this system is far from perfect. And in the case of political ads on Facebook, it teams up with what appear to be unreasonably broad definitions of what “political” even means.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is affected by this as its recruitment ads have been found to be “political” by Facebook – and since DHS refused to label them as “political” – the ads were removed, writes the Daily Beast. It seems that the decision was taken repeatedly both on Facebook and on Instagram between July 2018 and August 2019.

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When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Facebook said the DHS ad removals were a mistake. And this, the article said, raises “new questions about the accuracy of its filtering efforts.”

In order to allow entities to run ads related to politics, including elections and social issues, Facebook asks them to identify the ads as such, and also reveal the buyer’s identity which must be verified by the company.

But what’s “political”? Centro’s Grace Briscoe is quoted as saying that clients buying ads through this agency face problems because of Facebook’s “broad and unclear interpretation.”

Briscoe specifies that the giant has its own definition that is “totally different” from that offered by the government.

Tech giants don’t include overly broad and unclear definitions in their terms of service and community guidelines by mistake, though: this murkiness allows them a lot of wiggle room, including to take sometimes controversial, inconsistent and restrictive action without needing to clearly explain and justify it.

Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]