Do Big Social Media Platforms Have Effective Ad Policies?
While Facebook mistakenly prohibits some kinds of ads more than others, we did not discover evidence of political bias. Among Facebook ads, we did not find any statistically significant difference in political leaning, any difference between state or federal elections, or any differences based on the advertiser’s currency and internet location. We might have detected smaller differences with a larger sample size.
“As happens with any new process, we’re making mistakes as we learn,” said a Facebook spokesperson in response to our investigation. “These instances, however, are a small percentage of our efforts to bring more transparency to political and issue advertising.” The spokesperson stated that “We routinely evaluate ad review and take steps to improve the machine-learning model as well as our reviewer-training material.”
We’re not sure how to make sense of Google’s response to our ads. Google’s transparency report listed roughly 183,000 political ads from May 31 through October 15, less than one-fifth the rate of weekly Facebook ads reported by the NYU team. Maybe fewer campaigns are advertising on Google and YouTube, despite their larger market share. Maybe Google reports fewer political ads because their policies are less broad than Facebook’s. Google has expressed an intent to permit state campaign ads and political-issue ads “with restrictions,” but those restrictions may not yet be in place. Google may also have been less successful at detecting political advertising than Facebook, a question our research cannot answer.
Whether Google’s policy enforcement is more narrow, more lax, or more accurate than Facebook’s, the company did correctly publish each of our non-election ads, in line with their own policies.
Advertising transparency could be good for elections. In the 2010 majority opinion for Citizens United, Justice Roberts argued that real-time online transparency of election advertising could help voters “give proper weight to different speakers and messages” and “hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.” Even if transparency does improve the integrity of elections, platforms will always make at least some mistakes. If mistakes are common enough, false positives like the ones we observed from Facebook could have influential side effects on important parts of American civic life.
In St. Petersburg Florida, with the bicycle fundraiser for wounded veterans just a few weeks away, Jo Brower is still frustrated with what seems like an accusation of partisanship from Facebook. “I’m also promoting it other ways. I have nothing to hide.” Local veterans groups and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce have promoted the fundraiser, and some riders have already registered. Yet none of Jo’s other ideas can reach as many people as Facebook can.
Platforms have good reasons to protect democracies from illegitimate attempts to influence voters. Those protections also have a cost. Without care, the greatest collateral damage from these protections could be the nonpartisan communities and conversations that divided societies most desperately need.