Facebook mislabeled reams of ads from European Union institutions and European governments as political messages, according to a review by POLITICO.
The paid-for posts — often related to public awareness campaigns around the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Brexit — were added to the social networking giant’s online register of political ads alongside messages from far-right partisan groups, mainstream political parties and other political campaigners.
The mishandling raises questions about Facebook’s ability to police its own transparency tools, drawn up to counter accusations that it was facilitating the spread of misinformation.
After POLITICO contacted Facebook for comment about why these public service messages were treated the same as political-party digital posts, the company acknowledged it had misidentified these ads and said it was in the process of removing them from the online database of political ads.
“Ads about COVID-19 are generally allowed to run without a disclaimer,” Robin Koch, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement. “Ads about other social issues can also be exempt if they don’t contain political or electoral content, so some of these may have been flagged in error.”
The mistake was widespread across paid-for public service messages, collectively worth tens of thousands of euros that had been viewed thousands of times, from EU institutions and other public bodies like the British government.
Between January 12 and February 10, the European Commission, European Parliament and European governments, most notably the U.K., were some of the biggest ad buyers on Facebook, according to an analysis by Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter.
The British government, for instance, recently bought scores of Brexit-related and COVID-19 ads on Facebook to raise awareness about the need for people to protect themselves and to prepare for changes to how goods could be shipped to and from the country. The European Commission flooded Hungary with a digital anti-Roma discrimination campaign. The Council of the European Union ran ads to celebrate Lithuania’s National Day (and then ran them in Latvia and Poland).
During the most recent one-month period, the combined political ad spending for the 27-country bloc and the U.K. totaled €6.2 million, according to Facebook’s transparency tools. The U.K. was the largest market, with a total of €2.2 million spent on political ads. Among EU countries, Germany, Italy and Sweden were the top three biggest spenders, respectively.
While Facebook must now alter these overall figures to remove the mislabeled ad buys from EU institutions and governments, the total amount spent on political ads across Europe is not expected to change significantly, based on POLITICO’s analysis.
The United States — where almost all political ad buys on Facebook have been suspended since the country’s elections in early November — also amassed €1.9 million in nationwide political ad buys over the same period, including from a series of left- and right-leaning partisan groups that were able to sidestep the tech giant’s ongoing ban, according to POLITICO’s analysis.
Amid growing disquiet about Facebook’s role in democratic elections, policymakers have demanded greater oversight of digital political ads and have often harshly criticized the social networking giant’s role in society.
In the most recent one-month period, many of the paid-for messages on Facebook were associated with elections like the upcoming vote in the Netherlands on March 17 and regional elections in Catalonia on February 14.
Yet others, including European Parliament ads promoting sustainable farming practices and Commission paid-for messages around COVID-19 public awareness, were also mislabeled.
Governments in Europe and the U.S. have repeatedly called on Facebook to clamp down on bad behavior, and researchers have found loopholes in how the tech giant polices such political ads on its platform. Last year, Brussels also outlined proposals for limiting how political groups can target would-be voters online with tailored ads.
To quell such criticism, Facebook started a transparency system in 2018 that required entities like political parties or governments that were buying partisan ads or paid-for messages around hot-button topics such as climate change to disclose themselves to online users. So far, groups worldwide, collectively, have spent roughly $3 billion on these political ads, mostly in the U.S, according to Facebook’s transparency tools.
Despite the criticism against Facebook, the U.K. government — one of the country’s largest ad buyers during the most recent one-month period — ran multiple social media paid-for messages on the country’s economic recovery plans and COVID-19 health warnings. Some of those ads also ran in Denmark and Portugal to target British expats and those looking to trade with the U.K.
EU institutions also have turned to the social networking giant even as they try to curb the social media company’s excesses.
During the same one-month period, the Commission became one of the biggest Facebook ad buyers in Hungary with a 10-day digital campaign to raise awareness about discrimination of the minority Roma ethnic group. The same paid-for message ran in Romania and Slovakia, where racist attitudes toward the minority group are also common.
A Commission spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the Facebook campaign.
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