Politics

Democrats say Facebook cost them days of critical, last-minute advertising

On Tuesday, Facebook said it fixed a "bug" blocking political ads. On Thursday, groups like Priorities USA were still waiting.

Facebook crack

Democrats say they've waited days for Facebook to fix a "bug" in its political ad system.

Image: Eynav Raphael and Protocol

On Tuesday night, Facebook emailed some advertisers to say that it had fixed a "bug" that was inadvertently blocking a broad swath of political ads from running in the final days leading up to the presidential election. But advertisers including the Biden campaign and Priorities USA, a major Democratic PAC, say the issue has taken days to resolve, costing candidates crucial time they'll never get back.

The bug stemmed from Facebook's decision to prohibit all new political and social issue ads before the election, a policy the company announced in early October. But when Facebook flipped the switch on Tuesday just after midnight, political groups and campaigns, including Biden's, reported having loads of previously approved ads unexpectedly shut off. On Tuesday night, according to a copy of the message reviewed by Protocol, Facebook informed advertisers that the "majority of incorrectly paused ads are now restored to the ad status they were in prior to being paused." But by Thursday morning, Priorities USA told Protocol that 500 ads were still being blocked. That included ads directing people to hotlines if they're having trouble voting in key swing states like North Carolina and Arizona.

"They're rapid response ads to combat voter suppression," said Danielle Butterfield, Priorities' paid media director. "It is a big deal, even if it's a small number of ads."

On Thursday afternoon, after Protocol reached out to Facebook, the company let Priorities know it would be unblocking the ads in question. "Campaigns from both parties have seen some of their ads unexpectedly paused," a Facebook spokesperson told Protocol. "We believe that we have addressed the majority of the problems, and we are working with advertisers to understand and address any outstanding concerns."

Prior to the ban on new ads, Facebook had given advertisers a series of guidelines to follow to ensure their ads would be approved in time for Facebook's election week deadline. According to Butterfield, Priorities was assured that advertisers would be able to change their targeting audiences without falling afoul of Facebook's filter on new ads. But according to Facebook, when Priorities changed its targets, that triggered Facebook's automated system to view those ads as new, and thereby blocked them. It then took Facebook nearly two days to resolve the issue.

"After two days of public and private complaints, Facebook has finally acknowledged that they were wrong in shutting off our ads, but their recalcitrance and failure to prepare cost us two of the final seven days of advertising," Priorities chairman Guy Cecil said in a statement. "Facebook has had years to improve their policies. This last-minute policy rollout and implementation was a choice."

Priorities wasn't the only one up in arms about persistent problems. Megan Clasen, a senior paid media adviser to the Biden campaign, tweeted Thursday that the campaign was also having issues with certain Facebook ads on Thursday. "To put the FB issues into context, Trump is running ads that say that Biden's tax plan will cause a 14% increase for middle class families and our ad that clarifies that he won't raise taxes on anyone making <$400K is currently rejected on certain key targeting tracks," Clasen wrote.

A Facebook spokesperson couldn't comment on the source of that particular issue but said that both parties have experienced ad issues in recent days.

By Thursday evening, Biden digital director Rob Flaherty laid into Facebook in a lengthy statement. "Facebook has, to this point, provided no clarity on the widespread issues that are plaguing all of our ad campaigns since the onset of their new ad restrictions," Flaherty wrote. "We find ourselves 5 days out from Election Day unable to trust that our ads will run properly, or if our opponents are being given an unfair, partisan advantage."

Facebook swiftly seized on the speculation with a statement of its own. "No ad was paused or rejected by a person, or because of any partisan consideration," the statement, published to Facebook's government and politics blog, read. "We have worked throughout this election to maintain a neutral playing field and that remains true in the face of these problems."

The screw up was, in other words, universal.

Updated October 30 at 10:09 am ET to include statements from Flaherty and Facebook.

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