Facebook’s New Political Ad Policy Ends Up Censoring Bookstore’s Author Event Ads

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Facebook’s attempts to regulate political advertisements on its social media platform have made it more difficult for bookstores to “boost” author events. Boosted posts are those which have been paid for to ensure that they reach a wider audience. 

In early June, A Room of One’s Own Bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin, encountered a problem when trying to advertise author events on Facebook. The bookstore’s events coordinator, Gretchen Treu, requested to boost Facebook posts to promote two author events only to find that they were rejected on the basis of what Facebook characterized as their “political nature.”

The rejected posts are an outcome of a new Facebook political ad policy. The policy, which went into effect in May and applies only to ads targeting an American audience, was established to prevent foreign individuals or groups from running Facebook ads to influence U.S. politics. In order to pay for a “political” ad, advertisers must become authorized to do so. The authorization process includes submitting a government-issued ID and providing a residential mailing address. The new policy represents Facebook’s voluntary compliance with the proposed Honest Ads Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), and John McCain (R-AZ) that subjects online political advertisements to the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio, and satellite.

“Here, Facebook’s solution might be worse than the problem,” said David Grogan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression, Advocacy and Public Policy for the American Booksellers Association. “While we are sympathetic to Facebook’s attempt to filter out false news meant to influence our democratic process, attempts to regulate or control speech will usually result in unintended consequences. And in this case it has, as bookstores that are advertising important author events — critical to the free exchange of ideas — are censored indiscriminately alongside foreign actors. Facebook needs to go back to the drawing board on this policy.”

The posts in question advertised events with Ijeoma Oluo, promoting her book So You Want to Talk About Race (Seal Press), and Cecile Richards, discussing her memoir Make Trouble (Touchstone Books). Treu noted that the store regularly uses boosted posts to advertise its events and had previously never run into any problems. After requesting that Facebook review the rejected posts, the Oluo post was ultimately permitted while the site sustained its decision to reject the Richards ad.

The message notifying Treu of the posts’ rejection stated that “the text and/or imagery you’re using qualifies as political, based on the definition we’re using for enforcement.” Facebook defines ads that include political content as “any ad that is made by, on behalf of, or about a current or former candidate for public office, a political party, a political action committee, or advocates for the outcome of an election to public office; or relates to any election, referendum, or ballot initiative, including ‘get out the vote’ or election information campaigns; or related to any national legislative issues of public importance in any place where the ad is being run; or is regulated as political advertising.”

Facebook further elaborates by listing the issues it has identified as “national legislative issues of public importance”: abortion, budget, civil rights, crime, economy, education, energy, environment, foreign policy, government reform, guns, health, immigration, infrastructure, military, poverty, social security, taxes, terrorism, and values. Facebook has declared these issues inherently political and thus subject to regulation.

Treu explains that while it would be possible to go through the verification process in order to post political ads, there is a larger concern for booksellers at play: “On the one hand, I’m glad for the health of the country that false information and fake news ads are finally being dealt with to some extent by Facebook, and if I have to jump through extra hoops with my advertising, then I’m generally okay with that. On the other hand, I hate that author events, at least in our case, are being flagged as political. They need a better, more granular, and smarter system.”