OP-ED: Facebook's 'ad' ban hurts political mags
Shortly before this year's presidential election, Facebook — chastened by public opinion and congressional hearings — announced that it would cease all political ads in order to slow the flood of misinformation and disinformation that abounded on its platform. That made sense, given the power the social media website had over public opinion.
But, more ominously, the platform with more than 2.7 billion active monthly users also announced that, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 4, the day after the election, it would ban all ads "about social issues, elections and politics in the U.S." for an indefinite period.
Now, a month after the election, that ban remains in effect. And it impacts a good deal more than what people commonly think of as ads.
Most notably, this ban applies to paid promotion of posts and articles — the way many publications gain new readers and new audiences for their content. This is a tool used by publications including The Progressive, a 111-year-old political magazine based in Wisconsin. As the magazine's publisher, that makes me deeply concerned.
The Progressive has an active following on social media, especially Facebook. But due to these restrictions, we are no longer able to promote our articles and gain new audiences for the high-quality, fact-based reporting that our writers produce.
This is not the first time that progressive news websites have had trouble with Facebook's restrictions. In 2018, I reported on our attempts to publicize a public screening of four award-winning films. Facebook initially refused the ad, but later relented with no explanation.
In 2019, Mother Jones magazine issued a report showing significant loss in site visits (and revenue) due to a tiny change in Facebook's algorithm for driving traffic. The findings in the Mother Jones report were confirmed this past October by The Wall Street Journal.
But not only Mother Jones was affected. Facebook's rules affect all publishers who produce content that addresses social and political issues.
Facebook claims it is trying to restrict falsehoods and promote truth on its platform. So I decided to test this premise. On Nov. 19, we published an op-ed by our editor, Bill Lueders, about the importance of truth in journalism.
"We face a common enemy: the preponderance of lies. We also share a common goal: to make truth matter," Lueders wrote. "Our obligation as journalists and opinion leaders is to insist that truth is knowable, and deserves more fidelity than falsehoods."
Below this article on our Facebook page is a small box where Facebook asks "Do you want to 'boost' this post?" I clicked yes, and filed in the necessary information to make the post available (once I had paid by credit card) to other potentially interested readers who are not "followers" of our page but have similar interests.
Within a few hours, the message came back from the Facebook ads team: "Your ad was rejected because it doesn't comply with our advertising policies."
In an online update on Nov. 11, Facebook said, "The temporary pause for ads about politics and social issues in the U.S. continues to be in place as part of our ongoing efforts to protect the election. Advertisers can expect this to last another month, though there may be an opportunity to resume these ads sooner. We will notify advertisers when this pause is lifted."
If Facebook truly wants to "Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," as it claims in its mission statement, perhaps it should consider allowing fact-based, truth-seeking publications to share content with other interested audiences.
— Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.