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Facebook ban on new political ads starts off with major hiccups

Facebook’s ban on new political ads started Tuesday as the final day of the election approaches.

Facebook's ban on new political ads is already facing pushback from campaigns. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook’s ban on new political ads got off to a rocky start Tuesday, as political advertisers complained some ads were incorrectly blocked and others complained of rule-breaking posts that could still be misleading.

Advertisers — including both the Trump and Biden campaigns — ramped up spending over the last week to scrape in ads before the Oct. 27 deadline, after which Facebook said that only older ads could continue to run in the week before Election Day.

Biden campaign digital director Rob Flaherty tweeted his dissatisfaction with the initiative, saying it was “performative” and “immediately” broke on Tuesday.

And Facebook confirmed that some of Trump’s pre-purchased ads broke the company’s rules by telling people to “vote today” without additional context, and that it will remove them.

Facebook’s decision to block new political ads in the run-up to the election, as well as all ads after voting has concluded, came as the company faced pressure to better police misinformation on its site that could help shape the public’s perception of the election. Russians and other foreign interference campaigns in 2016 targeted social media users to help influence election results, something the tech giants this year have pledged to try to prevent.

But the new policy resulted in some hiccups Tuesday, advertisers said.

Mark Jablonowski, managing partner of DSPolitical, said his clients across the country ran into issues early Tuesday morning. The firm, which works on digital advertising for hundreds of Democratic campaigns across the country, reported that client ads that had been previously approved and running were being blocked by Facebook, citing the new policy.

“Everyone from unions to major campaigns have reported experiencing these issues,” Jablonowski said. “From what it appears, this is clearly a technology issue that they have not been able to resolve yet.”

DSPolitical reached out to Facebook but has not received a response yet, and its ads have not been restored.

Facebook ads product manager Rob Leathern tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the company was investigating the issue of “ads being paused incorrectly, and some advertisers having trouble making changes to their campaigns."

“We’re working quickly on these fixes, and will share an update once they are resolved,” he wrote.

The issues were earlier reported by Protocol.

Facebook announced its plan in September to stop approving new political ads for the seven days before election night. But campaigns and others would still be able to run ads that had previously made it through Facebook’s system and even be able to change the budget and placement of those ads.

Facebook to temporarily halt political ads in U.S. after polls close Nov. 3, broadening earlier restrictions

Many campaigns rushed to buy ads and get them approved last week before the ban set in. The Trump campaign spent $5.75 million on Facebook ads during the week ending Oct. 25, and the Biden campaign spent $8.42 million in the same time period.

That compares with $4.3 million for the Trump campaign and $7.41 million for the Biden campaign between Oct. 12 and 18.

“Campaigns had a very hard deadline,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist.

Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit that works with left-leaning down-ballot campaigns, said it’s currently running ads for more than 50 campaigns. It submitted all Facebook ads early to ensure they had time to appeal any that were rejected by the social network.

“We actually submitted all of our creative a week ago,” said Jessica Alter, the co-founder of Tech for Campaigns. “We’ve been ready for a while.”

Alter said many of their campaigns had their ads erroneously turned off on Tuesday.

“Of course, this is an issue for anyone it happens to and not right,” she said. "But the Biden campaign has other ways to get their message out — our candidates much less so.”

Facebook was one of the cheapest and most effective channels for candidates — especially in local races — to ensure their messages reached voters. The Facebook ad restrictions make alternative outreach, such as text messages and emails, even more important in the final stretch.

The new rules particularly have implications for campaigns during an election in a pandemic, where in-person campaigning like door-knocking and large events are limited due to the coronavirus.

Facebook also plans to temporarily block all political ads after the polls close on Nov. 3. Google confirmed Tuesday it would do the same. Both companies cited the fact that results of the election might not be available the night of Nov. 3 because of the influx of mail-in voting this year.

Facebook said that temporary ban is intended to limit confusion and abuse of the site in the days after the election. The company’s policies also outline plans to try to prevent the spread of misinformation — candidates are not allowed to prematurely claim victory in the ads or try to mislead people about the legitimacy of the election results.

Facebook has faced backlash and criticism for its ad policies since it confirmed last year that politicians are allowed to lie in ads. Around the same time, fellow social media company Twitter said it would ban political ads altogether.

Facebook’s temporary ads ban has been controversial since it was first announced, and campaigns continued to take issue with it Tuesday.

The Technology 202: Facebook's ad freeze starts today, forcing campaigns to consider digital alternatives

A Biden campaign staffer, Megan Clasen, called out one ad the Trump campaign had in the Facebook ad library, saying in a tweet that it broke the company rules. The ad reads, “Election Day Is Today,” with a photo of Trump, according to a screenshot.

“Facebook told the Biden campaign we could not launch ads that say ‘Election Day is tomorrow’ or ‘Election Day is today,’” Clasen tweeted.

Facebook confirmed the ad does violate its policy.

“As we made clear in our public communications and directly to campaigns, we prohibit ads that say ‘Vote Today’ without additional context or clarity,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said.

The policy says that candidates should run ads that will “stay relevant” through Election Day.

“For instance, it’s best to reference voting on ‘Election Day’ or ‘November 3’ versus ‘tomorrow’ or ‘today,” it reads.

The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.