Facebook is trying to boost transparency requirements for political ads aimed at influencing voters. It’s an attempt to respond to Russian meddling in the 2016 election via “fake news” placed on the platform.
But newsrooms are feeling the hit by having their stories identified as “political content.”
Inside the new ad policy
One of those measures is requiring any poster of content that pays for more exposure that is deemed to have “political content” (based on Facebook’s own definition) to first become “authorized”.
The authorization process — part of the advertising policies that took effect May 7 — involves several steps:
Advertisers must show proof of U.S. residency and confirm a mailing address;
Advertisers must identify a page administrator;
They must set up a 2-factor identification on their Facebook account;
And they must confirm their identity by providing a U.S. driver’s license or passport, U.S. residential mailing address and the last 4 digits of their Social Security number.
Under the new policy, Facebook will then send a letter by mail to the advertiser with a special code and URL to finish the ID confirmation. Once that process is completed, the page can begin running ads with so-called political content, but the posts will include a political ad header and disclaimer viewable by anyone who comes across it on their newsfeed.
The public will also be able to search ads with political content that have appeared on Facebook or Instagram since May 7, and see information about who paid for them, how much they paid and what groups were targeted.
So what’s wrong?
The problem is that political coverage from news outlets has been lumped into the same category as content from political action committees or other advocacy/agenda-driven organizations.
What this means for news outlets like us: While we’re able to post our stories on Facebook for free, boosting (or sponsoring) our content helps us to reach new audiences and can also help assure that our our posts show up on our existing readers’ newsfeeds.
It’s helpful to do that because Facebook’s algorithm, and the platform’s constant changes, can make it difficult for our stories to reach potential readers. But under the new registration policy, if the Center for Public Integrity wants to boost its posts, our nonpartisan investigative stories could easily be misidentified as propaganda, which could seriously harm our credibility earned during 29 years of producing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism..
Facebook rejected promoting our stories
In the past couple of months, Facebook has rejected several stories we tried to promote.
Our first rejected ad was coincidentally for an investigation into Russian lobbying of U.S. government officials. When we tried to boost this story, our ad was rejected by Facebook because our page was “not authorized.”
We tried editing the preview text, but that didn’t help and it came back unapproved again. After we appealed the decision, we got a response from Facebook’s support team that our ad had been reviewed and would be allowed after all.
But despite what the Facebook staff member said, Facebook never published the boosted version of our Russia lobbying story. And that wasn’t the only time this happened.
We’ve also gotten blocked for our stories about case managers trying to reunite migrant children and parents and on a congressional candidate from New Mexico trying to overturn the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.
What other newsrooms are saying
ProPublica and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting — two other national, nonprofit news organizations — have been similarly vocal about Facebook flagging news stories as political content while letting actual political ads go through. The News Media Alliance has sent an open letter to Facebook signed by executives from other major news organizations representing a combined total of more than 20,000 news publications, saying, “It is Facebook’s responsibility to retrofit its original policy and exclude from their political advertising archive those who produce news and cover political events around the world.”
After the backlash, Facebook issued a statement from Campbell Brown, the company’s head of global news partnerships and a former journalist at NBC and CNN. Based on input from publishers, Brown said that Facebook decided to not use “Political Ad” labels on promoted news stories and just say “Paid for by xx.” But avoiding the whole authorization process seems not to be possible.
“Removing an entire group of advertisers, in this case publishers, would go against our transparency efforts and the work we’re doing to shore up election integrity on Facebook,” she said. “We don’t want to be in a position where a bad actor obfuscates its identity by claiming to be a news publisher, and what’s more, we know there can be editorial content from news organizations that takes political positions.”
The Center for Public Integrity values transparency and accountability, as that’s central to our mission as an investigative newsroom, so we wanted to share how this new policy affects us.
“We believe overtly political groups should stand behind their posts and identify who they are, but not at the cost of shutting down legitimate journalism,” said John Dunbar, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.
For all these reasons, we have chosen to join our journalism colleagues and not register as a political publisher on Facebook at this time.