After the 2016 election, Facebook weathered a Category 5 storm of criticism that political ads on its social network may have swayed the presidential vote. Since then, the company has tried to bend over backward to address the problem—only in some cases it appears to be bending too far.
Last month, Facebook introduced rules that imposed new requirements for advertisers buying political ads: U.S. advertisers must prove that they reside in the country, while all political ads must include a “paid for by” disclaimer. Those ads would also feature a label that, when clicked upon, would reveal more information on the advertiser’s budget and the ad’s intended audience.
It didn’t take long for the unintended consequences of Facebook’s good intentions to show up. According to the New York Times, a number of small businesses—including hair salons, outdoor clothing makers, restaurants, and day-care centers—discovered that Facebook was rejecting their ads because its algorithms had determined them to be “political.”
Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, told the Times that the rejected ads “were mistakenly marked as political, and those decisions have been overturned.” Leathern admitted that such new policies at Facebook are “not going to be perfect at the start.”
In recent days, small businesses and other nonpolitical entities have taken to Twitter to express their anger and frustration at having their own Facebook ads rejected as too “political.”
Other people who sought to advertise things like podcasts, job fairs and city programs — which they did not consider to be at all political in nature — also reported that Facebook rejected their ads. That led to questions about how Facebook defines “political,” and what values it was basing that definition on.
Small businesses have long been a crucial constituent of Facebook advertisers. Even small-business owners who don’t post frequently in their personal newsfeeds have come to value Facebook’s potential to connect them with consumers and audiences that they would never reach otherwise.
In April, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said the company has more than 80 million small businesses around the world that advertise or promote their businesses on the social network.