Since Election Day, Facebook's ban on all political and issue ads has stoked anger among the many political candidates, organizations and even charities that have been barred from advertising on the platform, particularly with a high-stakes Georgia runoff taking place in just a few weeks.
But the ban hasn't actually stopped everyone from pushing political ads.
Hyper-partisan news pages like The Daily Wire have used an exemption Facebook bestows on some news outlets to continue buying ads with explicitly political messages, without being filtered through the company's political advertising funnel. And PragerU, which is not a verified news outlet but which makes viral conservative videos, appears to have just slipped through Facebook's cracks, sharing dozens of ads since Election Day that include the message, "The left is destroying America." These same ads also warn against "Big Tech censorship," even as they garnered thousands of impressions during an ostensible ban on political ads. (Media Matters for America first reported on the existence of these ads.)
This ad ran without a disclaimer for days during Facebook's ad ban.Image: Protocol
Between Dec. 3 and Dec. 9 alone, Facebook's ad library shows that The Daily Wire spent more than $5,000 on political and issue ads, while PragerU spent a little over $500. The Daily Wire's editor-in-chief didn't respond to Protocol's request for comment. PragerU's chief marketing officer, Craig Strazzeri, said the company has gone through Facebook's political ad authorization process but didn't explain why some of PragerU's political ads were running without a disclaimer. Instead, Strazzeri blamed Facebook for doing "whatever they can to try to prevent conservative ideas from reaching more people."
Sarah Schiff, a Facebook product manager, said in a statement that verified news outlets are allowed to continue running ads about politics during the ad ban, but that their "opinion content" is supposed to be prohibited. "We're temporarily prohibiting all advertisers, regardless of their political affiliation, from running ads about social issues, elections, or politics and are investigating to determine if ads have run in error," Schiff said.
The problem isn't just that some of the biggest partisan pages on the right have been able to circumvent Facebook's political ad filters over the last month. It's also that some of the biggest outlets on the left have been barred from doing so, because Facebook categorizes them as political groups, not news.
The most prominent example is Courier Newsroom, a group of left-leaning local newsrooms funded by Acronym, a Democratic organization. According to The Wall Street Journal, Courier inspired Facebook to institute a new policy this summer at Mark Zuckerberg's behest that prohibits any pages connected with political people or entities from being included on Facebook's News tab.
The new policy means that unlike other news outlets on Facebook, Courier is required to disclose their political ads. Since the ban went into effect, none of Courier's newsrooms have been able to boost their reporting on any stories related to politics or even broad social issues like climate change.
"We're trying to seed content organically to get the stories out there, but ultimately there's really only so far you can go," said Lindsay Schrupp, editor-in-chief of Courier, who said traffic to their sites has fallen by 50% under the ban. "We know it's pay-to-play, and we're definitely seeing that."
Courier was, for instance, immediately blocked from boosting a post reminding people of health insurance open enrollment deadlines and a news story about a JAMA study that showed Black and Hispanic people were not inherently genetically more vulnerable to COVID-19 despite higher rates of death. The Daily Wire, meanwhile, was able to run a group of ads linking to an opinion piece about the election by Ben Shapiro titled, "The Woke Lose." Those ads, which ran for several days after the ban was enacted, received more than a million impressions in the days after the election.
Facebook's news exemption was created in 2019, following an uproar from organizations that balked at having their stories included in Facebook's political ad library, which launched in 2018. To prevent news stories about politics from getting conflated with ads or caught up in the bulky authorization process Facebook requires for political advertisers, Facebook began verifying news outlets for exemption.
These verified pages don't have to maintain an archive of their ads beyond the ones that are currently active, and that archive doesn't include information on how much the ads cost or who saw them. There's only one caveat: When these pages buy ads that include opinion, they're supposed to disclose them as political ads. But that's a conceptual gray area for lots of hyperpartisan outlets, and they don't always comply.
The task of determining which sites count as news soon became tricky. Facebook created broad guidelines, including that websites had to cite their sources and include transparent information about their reporters. And yet, the rules appeared to be applied unevenly. Courier struggled for most of 2020 to get its newsrooms verified, Schrupp said, even before Facebook instituted its rule barring political entities in August. Meanwhile, obviously partisan sites like The Daily Wire and Breitbart have been given an exemption.
It's difficult to know for certain how many news outlets have used the exemption to continue pushing political ads on Facebook during the ad ban — or which outlets have, like Courier, been shut out of the exemption. Facebook doesn't publish a list of outlets with the news exemption and, by virtue of being exempt from the archive, the majority of ads purchased by news outlets disappear when they're no longer running. The only way they get archived is if Facebook catches the ads after the fact and lists them as having run without a disclaimer. The Daily Wire's ad archive now includes several post-facto disclaimers.
Laura Edelson, a doctorate candidate who helps run New York University's Online Political Ads Transparency Project, has been tracking Facebook ads from known partisan news sites since Election Day. She told Protocol that while both liberal and conservative sites have been running political ads during the ad ban, the vast majority of ads are coming from right-wing sites. There are two reasons for that, Edelson said. The first is that there's a bigger explicitly partisan media ecosystem on the right than there is on the left. "This isn't a switch you can flip. Either you invested in setting up one of these partisan local newsrooms a year ago … or you didn't," Edelson said.
Facebook spokesperson Mari Melguizo agreed with the assessment. "I think they're spot-on that, yes, the media ecosystem, especially on Facebook, leans more heavily right. There are more pages on that end of the political spectrum."
The second reason right-wing outlets have been more able to push political content through ads during the ban is that Courier, a formidable player in the space, has been temporarily taken out of the equation. "Acronym and Courier are huge. They're a massive part of this," Edelson said.
Beyond the hit to the business, Schrupp says the ban is interfering with Courier's ability to report on the Georgia runoffs. The company employs 70 reporters across the country, many of whom have been stationed in Georgia to cover the race. "We were committed to getting information out about voting rights in Georgia for the Senate runoff. That's been near impossible," Schrupp said. At the same time, according to CrowdTangle data compiled by Schrupp, over the last month, four of the top 10 most engaged posts on Facebook related to the Georgia runoff have come from Fox News and Breitbart.
To Edelson and the leadership at Courier and Acronym, Facebook's policy of prohibiting news organizations from getting verified if they have ties to political entities is flawed because so many partisan news outlets don't disclose their political ties. That means the sites with the least transparency may face even fewer disclosure requirements than sites that are upfront about their funding or their leadership.
"Because we transparently, proactively disclosed Acronym as an investor … they used that against Courier," said Tara McGowan, founder and CEO of Acronym.
McGowan doesn't deny that Facebook should have the ability to filter out partisan commentary from legitimate journalism, and there are plenty of people on the left and the right who believe Courier deserves as much scrutiny as any far-right outlet gets. But McGowan argues that if Facebook is going to write these rules, it should be based on the quality of the reporting. "You'd think that the standard and criteria for what makes verified news would be based on the integrity of the journalism and the content itself, not the investors," McGowan said. "That puts them in murky territory, given how few for-profit investors and investments are disclosed."
Facebook's policy around news outlets applies to any page that is owned by a political person or entity; any page that shares proprietary information, like passwords or data, with political people or entities; and any page that lists political people or entities as page owners or partners. Facebook defines political entities as political parties, campaigns, PACs and 501(c)(4) nonprofits or any for-profit business that consults for those organizations. Political people, meanwhile, are defined as political candidates, elected officials, people whose jobs are legislatively confirmed or people who are employed by or have decision-making authority over political people and entities.
McGowan says there's a political cost to allowing some right-wing groups and news outlets to continue paying to push their messages on Facebook while locking out outlets that might counter their narratives. For one thing, during the run-up to the 2020 election, Acronym analyzed the impact of boosted news articles compared to traditional political Facebook ads and found that, for low-information voters, news articles were far more persuasive in moving voters away from President Trump. "The boosted news was continually more effective," McGowan said.
Now, McGowan and Schrupp fear that Facebook is putting its thumb on the scales just weeks ahead of the Georgia runoffs. Facebook's spokesperson Melguizo said that while Courier has been vocal about its inability to get verified as news, there were plenty of pages on the other side of the political spectrum that were affected by the policy as well.
For McGowan, the issue of partisan outlets being exempt from the ad ban is part of a much larger pattern of Facebook tiptoeing around the far-right sites that regularly dominate the platform and are so quick to cry censorship. There's no law that says Courier Newsroom is a political entity but, say, The Federalist, which is funded by conservative megadonor Richard Uihlein, isn't. Facebook is making those judgment calls and, in this case at least, enforcing them in ways that seem to undermine its own policies. "They create a transparency tool under pressure, because they're not regulated," McGowan said, "but then, they get to make all the rules."
Update 12/12/20 1:08 pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify that Acronym funds Courier. Its super PAC Pacronym does not.