Last week, Facebook announced that it would allow political candidates to lie in ads posted to its platform, but it’s haphazardly enforcing a number of other advertising policies that have led to the takedowns of paid content from at least five US presidential candidates.
According to a BuzzFeed News review, Facebook has removed more than 160 ads posted this month by President Donald Trump and some Democratic candidates, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, and businessperson Tom Steyer. In some cases, Facebook appeared to apply its policies unequally, removing some ads for breaking rules around profanity, fake buttons, and advertising in certain states while leaving others that seemed to do the exact same thing untouched.
In several instances, Facebook quietly removed ads that ostensibly violated its policies after BuzzFeed News inquired about them on Monday. By one count, the social network took down an additional 32 ads from the Biden campaign after the inquiries.
As of 5 p.m. PT on Oct. 14, Biden had the most ads of any candidate removed; Facebook took down at least 117 ads, which were mostly focused on the Trump impeachment effort. At least 28 Warren ads were taken down during this time period, including six on Oct. 11 promoting her 100% clean energy plan and another 22 on Oct. 2. Facebook took down one each from Sanders and Steyer and removed 21 Trump ads attacking Biden, one of which displayed a video promoting a lie about the former vice president.
“None of these political ads were rejected on the basis of being deemed false by our fact-checkers,” a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “They were removed for violating one or more of Facebook's other advertising policies, such as our policy against using fake buttons in ads.” The Trump ad, for example, was taken down for violating Facebook's rules against profanity in advertisements, the company spokesperson explained.
“Evidently Facebook views our graphic design choices as a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump's obscene lies.”
Representatives for the Trump, Sanders, and Warren campaigns did not return requests for comment. A spokesperson for Steyer said the campaign does not comment on ads or ad strategy.
"Evidently Facebook views our graphic design choices as a greater threat to American democracy than Donald Trump's obscene lies," Biden spokesperson TJ Ducklo told BuzzFeed News. "They gladly profit off of these proven falsehoods, no matter the cost to our national discourse."
Using Facebook’s ad library, BuzzFeed News examined Facebook ads from the five campaigns that began running between Oct. 1 and 5 p.m. PT on Oct. 14, distinguishing between active ads, inactive ads — which had reached the end of their run cycle or had been taken down by the advertiser — and ads removed by Facebook. There appeared to be no takedowns for California Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, or author Marianne Williamson.
While Facebook's ad library provides some spending and demographic data about ads, it does not explain why offending ads were taken offline or which of its 32 policies around prohibited content they had violated.
Here are some examples of offending ads that have been regulated by Facebook:
Banned for profanity
This advertisement inspired scrutiny of Facebook's political ad policies by prominently featuring a lie about Biden and his son Hunter. In variations of the ad's text and the associated video — which also appeared on YouTube and Twitter — the Trump campaign falsely claimed Biden offered $1 billion to Ukrainian officials to end an investigation of a company with connections to his son.
But that bogus claim is not why Facebook removed the ad. The platform took it down because the video included footage of Biden saying "son of a bitch."
“Our systems disapproved the ad because it contains profanity," a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "We have reached out to the campaign and let them know they must edit it before it can run again.”
Taken down for ties to Washington state
Warren recently inserted herself in the debate about Facebook's responsibility to police false political advertising, running an ad last week that claimed Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump's reelection to make a point about the social network's new policy. Facebook killed her climate ad over a local disclosures rule.
Last year, the state of Washington sued Facebook and Google for allegedly violating its campaign finance laws by failing to maintain data on the purchasers of election ads and later adopted new laws on ad disclosures. In response, Facebook implemented a blanket ban on "ads that relate to Washington's state or local elected officials, candidates, elections or ballot initiatives."
Because the text of this ad and a handful of others created by the Warren campaign mention Jay Inslee, the Washington governor and former Democratic presidential candidate, they were removed.
Bad landing page
This ad from Bernie Sanders, the only ad removed by Facebook for the campaign in the time period reviewed by BuzzFeed News, seems largely innocuous. It has clean, inoffensive text, a standard picture, and an unobjectionable call to action.
So why was it taken down? Well, the problem isn't the ad; it's the landing page. According to Facebook, clicking through the ad led to a nonfunctional landing page, a violation of its rules. This policy was put in place to prevent ads that direct people to malicious landing pages or pages that don't match what's being promoted. BuzzFeed News was unable to determine what page this Sanders ad pointed to.
Buttons, buttons, buttons
The most common violation of Facebook's advertising policies among the candidate ads examined by BuzzFeed News was for "nonexistent functionality." In these cases, these ads depict multiple images of buttons that a viewer may think are an interactive feature, but are not.
Facebook removed a number of Trump ads for this reason as well as dozens from the Biden campaign. The one Steyer campaign ad taken down this month had a similar button feature.
While this policy was put in place to prevent scammy ad techniques, like the placement of fake play buttons on photos that mimic the appearance of a media player, it's been applied haphazardly. Dozens of Biden ads that violate this policy made it past Facebook's automated filters and human checkers. The company removed 32 more ads from Biden's campaign following a BuzzFeed News inquiry.