When it comes to campaign ads on Facebook, you can lie or be racist—but don’t you dare cuss or stick a button in the ad. In the first half of October, Facebook has removed over 160 ads from the Biden, Warren, Sanders, Steyer, and Trump campaigns but for reasons that mostly pertain to design, according to a review by BuzzFeed News.
Of the campaigns affected, the Biden campaign had the most ads that were taken down—at least 117 as of Monday evening. Warren’s campaign was next with 28 ads taken down, followed by Trump at 21 ads. The Sanders and Steyer campaigns each had one ad removed each. While the Biden ads that were removed focused on efforts to impeach Trump, and the Trump ads were focused on attacking Biden, mudslinging wasn’t why the ads were deleted. The ads in question were seemingly removed for violating Facebook’s advertising policies.
One Trump ad falsely claimed Joe Biden had offered Ukraine $1 billion to kill an investigation into his son, Hunter. Except, that lie wasn’t why the ad was subsequently removed. (Last year, Facebook codified a loophole that lets politicians effectively lie.) The ad was nixed because it included footage of Biden saying “son of a bitch.” Sure.
Meanwhile, a Warren ad for clean energy also got booted off the platform because the text referred to Washington Governor Jay Inslee. That was in violation of a blanket ban Facebook implemented last year after the state sued Facebook and Google over campaign finance legislation. Essentially, mentioning any Washington elected officials could get your ad banned.
The Sanders ad that was removed apparently led to a bad landing page. But BuzzFeed found the most common “violation” was buttons. As in, various campaign ads featured buttons that a user might think is interactive, but weren’t.
“Evidently, Facebook views our graphic design choices as a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump’s obscene lies,” Biden spokesperson TJ Duckle told Gizmodo over email. “They gladly profit off of these proven falsehoods, no matter the cost to our national discourse.”
Gizmodo also reached out to the Warren campaign, but did not immediately receive a reply.
If you’ve been paying attention, none of this should surprise you. Last week, Warren’s campaign purposefully put out an ad that falsely claimed that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook fully endorsed Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. (You can see the ad here.) As of this writing, those ads are still active. As is a Trump ad using a slur against Native Americans to attack Warren.
For its part, Facebook is sticking firm to the company line. “While we aren’t sending politicians’ ads to fact checkers, everyone on Facebook is expected to follow our ad policies,” a Facebook spokersperson told Gizmodo. “These policies prohibit everything from profanity to fake buttons, voter suppression and sensational content like extreme violence-and hate speech. If we find these violations, we will reject the ad.”
This also comes just as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted to wining and dining right-wing critics to exchange ideas and “hear from a wide range of viewpoints” in the name of learning. That, plus Facebook’s seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent ad removal policy, is especially concerning in light of recently leaked audio published a few weeks ago by the Verge. In it, Zuckerberg promised to fight back against Warren if she went through with promises to break up big tech companies.
It’s clear that as the 2020 election draws closer, Facebook’s murky ad policies are hitting a nerve. Earlier today, Warren wrote in a Medium blog that her campaign would now refuse major donations from tech executives. “Today, I’m announcing... I’m not going to take any contributions over $200 from executives at big tech companies, big banks, private equity firms, or hedge funds,” Warren writes. She went on to urge her fellow Democratic candidates to do the same, as well as disclose donors and fundraisers who might have special titles.