Political strategists say recent moves by Facebook to secure its powerful advertising engine are hampering their ability to communicate with Hispanics and Spanish-speaking audiences ahead of the midterm elections.
New procedures adopted by Facebook in response to Russian meddling and allegations of racially discriminatory ad practices often require several days for the company to review political ads targeted to ethnic groups, while ads that target broader audiences are approved immediately, said strategists for three liberal organizations, Priorities USA, Latino Victory and Win Dem PAC.
Another group that supports conservative causes has experienced the same delays when buying ads that target Spanish-speaking or Hispanic audiences on Facebook, according to an official there, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The strategists say the delays hurt their ability to reach and engage voters, since ads are often created and posted in the same day, sometimes in response to news events. Priorities alone plans to spend $50 million this cycle on digital advertising to support Democratic House and Senate candidates, and mobilizing the fast-growing Hispanic population is a focus for the party in several key battlegrounds.
“This is clearly a flaw in their system that is inadvertently punishing good actors who want to advertise on the platform,” said Josh Schwerin, the communications director for Priorities. “We hope changes are made that enable Facebook to continue to crack down on discrimination without the costly negative impact on groups like ours.”
Facebook, which has emerged in recent years as one of the most important political advertising platforms, vastly increased human review of some ads starting last year, after revelations emerged about Russian meddling on the platform, including the purchase of advertising by Russian operatives. News reports also found that ads for housing, employment or credit could be targeted to avoid nonwhite audiences in violation of Facebook’s anti-discrimination policies.
The company also announced in December that it may impose “expanded review” for other types of ads that target “multicultural affinity segments and other potentially sensitive segments.” Facebook’s advertising policies prohibit advertisers from using audience selection tools to “discriminate against, harass, provoke, or disparage users.”
“One of our main goals in requiring more human ad review is to catch ads that violate our policies before they run on Facebook — including those that are discriminatory,” said Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, when asked about the complaints. “Advertisers across the board may see small delays — they aren’t specific to one type of targeting or advertiser — but we think it’s the right trade off to help keep people safe.”
A Facebook official acknowledged that the increase in human reviews are causing delays for ads involving politics, religion, ethnicity and social issues, but the company had not seen specific delays around multicultural affinity targeting compared with other targeting categories.
With over $13 billion in revenue last quarter, Facebook is the largest online advertising company after Google parent Alphabet, and has historically seen its political ad business as a selling point.
But as Russian operatives began to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, flooding Facebook with divisive messages that the company’s algorithms helped spread, the political business began to face scrutiny from Congress and the public, which intensified after revelations that a firm that worked for the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica, had improperly obtained Facebook user data.
This month the company’s quarterly earnings report caused its stock to drop more than 20 percent — the largest single-day drop in market capitalization in Wall Street history. Facebook has committed to hiring 20,000 human reviewers for content and ads by the end of this year.
Several political ad buyers contacted by The Washington Post say ads that try to reach specific demographics can take three or more days to be approved on the platform. In some cases, identical ads for a broader audience are approved immediately.
“It impedes the ability of organizations that are trying to target minority voters by not being able to target an ad by language spoken,” said Abby Loisel, the digital director of Latino Victory. “While they might be approved after a while, that means you will be less able to be quickly adaptable.”
The new system could also cost Facebook advertising revenue during the heavy political ad season, while potentially undercutting the company’s efforts to portray itself as a champion of the democratic process.
When Priorities tried to purchase an advertising campaign supporting Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in June, the ads that narrowly targeted Hispanic English-speakers and Hispanic Spanish-speakers were initially rejected, while identical spots to a broader audience were immediately accepted.
The delay in approving some ads cut into budgeted time for the campaign. As a result, Priorities said it did not spend its full budget and reached 243,747 fewer impressions, about 20 percent below what the group had expected.
This year, Facebook implemented other changes so that people who want to buy a political ad, including ads that mention a federal candidate and ads that focus more broadly on issues such as abortion or gun rights, must disclose their identities, locations and receive a verification from Facebook.
That process has prompted protests from liberal groups, who note that even issue ads that mention topics like “civil rights” and “values” can be categorized as political. They have argued that requiring government identification blocks undocumented immigrants in some states from placing ads.
“We’re definitely exploring ways to reduce the time for them from starting the authorization process to being able to place an ad,” Leathern said on a call with reporters in July.
Yash Mori, a Democratic digital consultant who works for Win Dem PAC, says he recently bought about 30 ads on Facebook, some of which were classified by the site as political and some that were not. The two Spanish-language targeted ads were the only ones that were initially rejected, he said. Both were approved days later, after he filed an appeal.
“If the client signs off on the ad and you have two days to reach out for someone for an ad, it limits you from reaching out for that audience,” he said of the disapprovals.
The system has forced Latino Victory, a progressive group that supports Latino candidates, to change the way it targets advertising. In March, the group uploaded a Facebook ad asking people to vote and make phone calls to support Veronica Escobar, a Democrat running for Congress in El Paso.
When the buyers requested that Facebook target the ad at Spanish speakers in the district, it was rejected, said Loisel. Since there was not enough time to appeal the decision before the primary, she resubmitted the ad to target an age range instead, and it was accepted.
Loisel says she has since stopped trying to target Spanish speakers to avoid delays. She now tries other filters, like targeting people who have expressed interest in local Spanish-language television networks, which appear to bypass the automatic rejection filters.