Dear Mark Zuckerberg,
Today, I will finish writing this letter to you, publish it on our blog, and attempt to share it with Facebook users by paying you to promote it via your company’s “Boost Post” feature.
That’s right, I said “attempt.” Why do I have any doubt that you’ll run it? Shouldn’t a Facebook promotion that we pay good money for, and that contains no offensive or harmful content of any kind, reach our followers’ and friends’ feeds?
Of course it should. But our recent experience suggests it might not – because of your platform’s unclear, frequently unfair, and entirely unfortunate practice of flagging promoted posts like ours on the grounds that they are “political.”
You and I both know what I’m talking about here, but for those who don’t, here’s a little background.
As part of its attempts to address the fake news backlash and prevent the ad-driven hackery of the 2016 election from happening again, Facebook enacted a policy in 2018 that requires any advertisement that Facebook, in its sole discretion, deems to be “political” must carry a “Paid for by” label along with the ad.
On its surface, this seems like a logical requirement – who wouldn’t want to know who’s behind a paid political advertisement?
This verification process, so the thinking goes, will cut down on fake accounts trying to promote misinformation and offer users more transparency in terms of who is behind the promoted campaigns that pop up on their News Feeds.
We can get behind that! Except for the fact that, in practice, it has been anything but great for a group like ours.
Once Facebook deems your post to be “political” in nature, they will not let your promoted post run until you agree, through an automated authorization form, to register as a political organization. The form has proven to be easily exploitable, and what’s more, Facebook’s decision to err on the side of over-labeling content as “political” has led to many organizations being asked to classify as something they are not.
See, it turns out that Facebook’s content moderation team decides whether a promoted post is “political” by referencing a long list of “issues” that Facebook has deemed “nationally important.” These very clear, not vague at all (sarcasm alert), issues include, but are not limited to, anything having to do with “civil rights,” “crime,” “energy,” “health,” “poverty,” “environment,” and… wait for it… “values.”
If Facebook’s content moderation cyborg collective determines that your promoted post makes any reference to one of these “issues” as Facebook defines them – and if you have not accepted their ruling (made with no apparent human intervention, or at least they offer no human to talk to) that you must register as a “political organization,” then Facebook will summarily reject your promoted post… typically without explanation of any kind.
I know this because my organization, CreativeFuture – which ran promoted posts for many years on Facebook until they implemented this new policy – has experienced it firsthand.
In October of last year, for instance, we sent a letter to Congress asking for their support of copyright and platform accountability. The letter was, to our delight, picked up by Variety magazine, so we proudly purchased an ad to promote it on Facebook. We weren’t endorsing a campaign or candidate, or espousing a political view of any kind – unless you consider supporting the creative communities “political.” And, of course, there is nothing political or partisan about copyright – it’s not a left or right, Democratic or Republican subject. But, our post did mention “Congress,” and it seems that this usage of a politics-adjacent term, regardless of its intent, may have led to the post’s (unappealable) rejection, denying us the ability to speak to our followers.
Then there was the time we tried to promote a post about World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, and his deep regret over how Big Tech companies – like yours, Mr. Zuckerberg – haven’t been held accountable for the many ways in which they have abused his creation. Facebook rejected this one, too, as “political.” Unlike the Variety ad, this promotion did not have one iota of what anyone would consider “political” language within it, though it did mention Facebook itself – maybe the moderator was feeling particularly protective of their employer that day?
And then, there was our most recent Facebook ad fail – a promoted post linking to Walking Dead executive producer Gale Ann Hurd’s thoughtful op-ed about the false narrative on China coming out of Silicon Valley. Hurd discusses how platform monopolies, and their strangling of creativity and innovation, actually pose a bigger threat to America than any Chinese competition. The piece discusses how limiting monopoly power and protecting copyright is actually the best defense against foreign economic powers. The author is a producer, not a politician, and her article is about policy, not politics. But yet again, Facebook rejected the promoted post.
Each of these occurrences serve as an egregious example of a promoted post filtering system that Facebook has implemented with total opacity. Rather than develop a policy that targets truly bad political actors – malign foreign governments, Nazi sympathizers, racist organizations and the like – it is hitting lots of perfectly legitimate groups with a blunt force object.
Mr. Zuckerberg, you’ve probably heard of the Electronic Frontier Foundation – a Big Tech shill who also happen to frequently attack CreativeFuture through their endless nose-thumbing at copyright and creative livelihoods. Well, those guys think your takedown methodology is bogus, too!
So, congratulations! You have managed to get two organizations that rarely agree on anything to agree that your new promoted post filtering scheme is awful.
I know what you’re thinking – you’re thinking that if we want our ads approved, all we have to do is to kowtow to your demand that we register with Facebook as a “political organization.” Then we can mention all the “nationally important” issues we want and no overworked moderator will ding us for it. Problem solved, right?
Well, no. First of all, we’re not a “political organization,” any more than the Electronic Frontier Foundation is. CreativeFuture is a coalition that promotes the value of creativity and advocates for strong and effective copyright. The great thing about copyright, as we said above, is that there’s no left or right on our issues. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, a liberal, conservative, or libertarian, creativity’s importance to our economy and culture is not a partisan issue.
We have no interest in registering as a “political organization” because we don’t want you to be able to tell us how our content should be categorized. Do you have a problem with Russian hackers or Nazis or “fake news” promoters looking to prey on your users? Then fix that problem! But don’t make us collateral damage. We have a message about creativity and we want it to reach our followers in its purest form – not branded with a “Paid for by” sticker that puts us in a pigeonhole that you created.
We’re far from alone in this desire. There are millions of good-faith individuals and groups on your platform who have no political agenda but whose promoted content might touch on one of your “nationally important issues” and therefore trigger a rejection. Should a medical nonprofit have to register as a “political organization” because its promoted posts have something to do with the “nationally important” topic of “health”? Should a food shelter have to register as a “political organization” if its promotions mention the “nationally important” subject of “poverty”? Should the United Way have to register as a “political organization” because it calls on people to get involved in the “nationally important” issue of “homelessness”?
I could go on, but I won’t – because I know you have already conceded that there are egregious flaws with your system. You proved it when Facebook recently tweaked its filtering to exempt approved news outlets. You understood that forcing a news publication to identify as “political” in order to safely promote its content would only further undermine America’s already tenuous trust in vital journalism.
Now you also need to understand that Facebook’s arbitrary suppression of other forms of content that your company, in its “wisdom,” deems “political” is impacting more than journalism – it’s directly harming your users’ ability to communicate with their followers with legitimate information through the paid tools that you yourself have provided.
Facebook needs to have far more transparency in regards to why rejected promotional materials get tagged, evaluated, and removed. We also need appeal mechanisms that are easy to access, easy to use, and that – most importantly – actually elicit a response from a human moderator. And, you need to seriously rethink your forced “registration” process that brands “political” organizations that are not. Until then, your policy on this issue will only continue to hurt your users’ ability to connect with each other – a bad look for a company whose stated goal is to “connect the world.”
I’m going to publish this letter on our blog now, and then I’m going to pay to have it promoted to CreativeFuture’s Facebook followers. I will be interested to see if it escapes the maw of your “political content” filters so more people can be exposed to the truth: Facebook loves to congratulate itself for its half-assed solutions to fairly simple problems, but the current state of your arbitrary content moderation is flirting with something that is quite the opposite – censorship.
And censorship, as I’m sure you would agree, Mr. Zuckerberg, is definitely an “issue of national importance.”