Facebook has been running ads for body armor, gun holsters, and other military equipment next to content promoting election misinformation and news about the attempted coup at the US Capitol, despite internal warnings from concerned employees.
In the aftermath of an attempted insurrection by President Donald Trump’s supporters last week at the US Capitol building, Facebook has served up ads for defense products to accounts that follow extremist content, according to the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit watchdog group. Those ads — which include New Year’s specials for specialized body armor plates, rifle enhancements, and shooting targets — were all delivered to a TTP Facebook account used to monitor right-wing content that could incite violence.
Beginning last summer, the Mark Zuckerberg–led company banned pages, groups, and accounts belonging to US-based militant groups, “boogaloo” extremists, and those associated with the QAnon mass delusion. But members of those movements quickly found ways around the company’s policies by renaming their pages or using code names. They continue to proliferate, organize, and advertise on the social network.
These ads for tactical gear, which were flagged internally by employees as potentially problematic, show Facebook has been profiting from content that amplifies political and cultural discord in the US.
"Facebook has spent years facilitating fringe voices who use the platform to organize and amplify calls for violence,” said TTP Director Katie Paul. “As if that weren't enough, Facebook's advertising microtargeting is directing domestic extremists toward weapons accessories and armor that can make their militarized efforts more effective, all while Facebook profits."
"Facebook's advertising microtargeting is directing domestic extremists toward weapons accessories and armor."
In a statement that did not address BuzzFeed News’ questions about specific ads, pages, or groups, Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said, “Our teams are working to stay ahead of any militia groups that try to evade” the social network’s ban.
She added, "We don’t allow ads that praise, support, or represent militarized social movements, and ban ads that promote the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives."
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons said that in light of last week’s assault on the Capitol, Facebook needed to “conduct a robust review of all of its business practices, not just the content it hosts.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, he said, “It’s clear after last week’s assault on the Capitol that social media companies, including Facebook, need to take additional steps to prevent violence and extremism from taking root on their platforms — whether by hosting content that incites or organizes violence or by making it easier for those with bad intentions to obtain military gear.”
On Wednesday morning, ads for military-grade tactical gear ads appeared in the News Feed of a TTP-run Facebook account designed to mimic the online habits of someone who followed extremist content on the platform. The year-old account was designed to look like that of a 32-year-old man based in Covington, Kentucky, who follows or is part of more than 75 pages or groups that share pro-Trump memes, election misinformation, or outright calls for violence.
These pages include “RAPID Militia,” “Modern Militia,” and “Appalachian Mountain Patriots” (formerly “Appalachian Oath Keepers”). Facebook banned militant groups in August; the Oath Keepers is a far-right anti-government organization that has been prohibited by the platform.
The TTP account does not post or like any of the content Facebook delivers to it, though Paul does scroll through the feed and follows links for her research. While the account does not follow the pages of Donald Trump or his son Donald Trump Jr., Facebook deemed those two figures to be part of the account’s “interest categories,” which also include the “Republican Party (United States),” “American football,” and “Politics.” Facebook users do not specify their interest categories, which are determined by the social network’s algorithms based on a person’s on-platform activity.
Paul showed BuzzFeed News a live video of the activity on the account’s feed on Wednesday morning.
In the News Feed, an ad for “high-quality American-made holsters” ran above a post falsely claiming that the recent presidential election had been stolen. The ad was targeted to people over the age of 18 whose primary location is the US, according to a Facebook informational panel. A different video ad for a flashlight and laser pointer that could be attached to a semiautomatic rifle was shown next to a post from a group that promotes booglaoo content. Members of the boogaloo movement, a loose network of anti-government extremists who advocate for civil war, have previously been charged with killing law enforcement officers.
While Facebook prohibits ads for firearm sales and gun modifications, advertisers are allowed to use the platform and its audience-targeting capabilities to sell weapon accessories. The advertised products seen by BuzzFeed News included gun belts, steel targets, and body armor.
Because Facebook is a highly personalized platform, it’s unclear which specific demographics have been targeted for tactical gear advertising. The company, which was expected to record $80 billion in revenue in 2020, typically does not disclose detailed targeting information for nonpolitical ads.
“You have all the other survival gear so why are you missing one of the most essential pieces of equipment for when SHTF,” read one ad for an armored vest, using an initialism for “shit hits the fan.” The ad contained an image of a semiautomatic rifle sitting atop a trunk, which also propped up the armor.
The same ad was flagged inside Facebook on Monday by a concerned employee, according to postings seen by BuzzFeed News on Workplace, the social network’s internal forum for workers.
“IMO it’s a set of products we’d be better off not advertising, especially not when combined with a rifle in the graphic, and it is at best terrible timing,” the person wrote. A reviewer of the ads responded to the post to note that they “did not find enough violations to take down the ad,” igniting a vigorous debate among employees.
In another Workplace group, a different Facebook worker reported that friends had found military gear ads served alongside news stories about the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol.
“This looks serious to me because it can be read as 1) us profiting off of the events 2) encouraging people to take some kind direction to the events,” they wrote, attaching a video of what they were seeing.
On Monday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke at a Reuters conference at which she discussed the recent violence at the Capitol. In the interview, she said that Facebook had taken proactive measures to remove extremist content.
“I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, and don’t have our standards, and don’t have our transparency,” Sandberg said. “But certainly, to this day we are working to find any single mention that may be leading to this and making sure we get it down as quickly as possible.”
In a statement, Bourgeois, the company spokesperson, said that “Sheryl began [the talk] by noting these events were organized online, including on our platforms — with the clear suggestion we have a role here.”
During Monday’s interview, Sandberg also addressed the proliferation of hate-related content on Facebook.
“I think there’s a false belief that we somehow profit, that people somehow want to see this content,” she said. “That’s just not true.”
As she spoke, a “Stop the Steal” group with more than 14,000 members was still active on the platform. While that group was later removed, others have replaced it, and Facebook is displaying ads next to their content.