MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook has once again come under criticism that its advertising policies are hurting groups that wish to promote pro-life viewpoints on its platforms.
However, the global social-media giant says its enhanced policies on paid promotions regarding “issues of national importance” are hitting everyone equally and are necessary in light of foreign operatives interfering in U.S. politics and elections.
Nick Loeb, co-producer of Roe v. Wade, a new movie on the eponymous 1973 decision that legalized abortion throughout the U.S., told the Register that Facebook blocked his team from promoting a Hollywood Reporter article on the film. The film is billed as “the real untold story of how people lied; how the media lied; and how the courts were manipulated to pass a law that has since killed over 60 million Americans.”
The reason: Abortion is an “issue of national importance” under Facebook’s new advertising rules in the United States. Loeb was told his group would have to register with Facebook, providing they are physically located in the U.S., before being allowed to promote The Hollywood Reporter article.
“All we’re doing is posting articles on a movie,” he said. “I’m not saying, ‘Go vote for Trump’ or ‘Go vote for Bernie.’”
Loeb said his experience with Facebook has been frustrating. For the past year, he said, the movie’s team believes they have experienced obstacles in promoting the film, concluding at one point their posts were being shadow banned.
“People would post, and then it wouldn’t show up in their news feeds,” he said.
The problems have hit them on other platforms, such as YouTube, which is owned by Google.
“It hurt us tremendously,” he said, saying that social media is necessary to generate momentum and gain new backers.
“You need tens of thousands of supporters to raise money for an $8- to $10-million film,” he said.
Loeb said the film draws from original sources to tell the courtroom drama behind Roe v. Wade, which he said has not been told before. The film attempts to show for the first time the inner workings of the Supreme Court and the drama that led to the fateful decision in 1973.
The project began two to three years ago, Loeb added, when he realized that nobody understands Roe, why the U.S. got to that point on the abortion question, or how it was decided. They finished shooting the movie last summer, and the film is in the post-production phase, with a planned release this fall.
Loeb said they have pro-life and pro-choice actors, investors and supporters behind the film, who are joining together because the material is compelling. Loeb questioned whether liberal filmmakers were being required to label their movies in the same manner.
“It’s a double standard,” he said, saying he does not believe liberal films promoting transgender values are receiving the same kind of treatment.
Facebook lists 20 items as national issues in the U.S. that may require advertiser authorization and labeling, from “abortion” all the way to “values.” It states this list may “evolve over time.”
Facebook uses a combination of automated and human review to determine whether paid-advertising requests on its platform are compliant with its “national-issues policy.”
A Facebook representative familiar with the ad-request policy, who asked not to be named, told the Register that the text, the image and the landing page are all examined. She said the policy applies to all groups equally and that even Planned Parenthood groups have to follow these rules when doing paid promotions.
“Transparency is a major priority for us in order to prevent election interference, so we are taking a broad approach to start as we roll out this policy further,” the Facebook representative said.
Facebook has come under fire from Congress over the fact that Russian operatives successfully used its platform, along with other social-media platforms, to amplify U.S. divisions during the 2016 election by spreading fake news articles and fake events (including pro- and anti-Trump rallies) designed to inflame partisans on either side.
According to the Facebook representative, this national-issues policy is a direct response to that problem, which is why the organization is requiring people verify their personal information with government ID and confirmation they live in the U.S. Organizations that want to have paid advertisements on issues of national importance, she said, should go through the registration process in order to make sure they don’t run into this issue.
Nick Loeb’s situation is not the first time that pro-life groups or organizations have encountered frustration with the policy or encountered it unexpectedly.
During the 2018 midterm elections, Susan B. Anthony List staff said their organization repeatedly ran into this issue — six times in October alone.
SBA List staff said on Nov. 1 they received an apology from Facebook, but the same advertisement was blocked in Montana hours later.
In that final case, while the approved ad was the same, the account holder running that ad was different, the Women Speak Out PAC, one of SBA List’s partners. The Register asked for but did not receive comment from SBA List.
The Facebook representative said there was an error, since SBA List was authorized to run these types of ads and has run hundreds successfully, and the ad was up and running again soon.
The policy affects even Church communities that may wish to educate the public about abortion or other issues of Catholic social teaching, such as immigration, civil rights or the environment.
One Catholic church community in New York was blocked from advertising a Holy Hour to “protect unborn life” on the Jan. 22 Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. Only when the event’s wording was changed to “cherish life” was the post automatically approved for paid promotion to the local community.
Monopoly on Speech
Ryan Bomberger, chief creative officer of the Radiance Foundation, told the Register that pro-life groups are having to confront a situation where a handful of global social-media platforms have overtaken newspapers and magazines as places to advertise and are now “very powerful gatekeepers” of information.
Bomberger maintained his organization was unfairly accused of interfering in Ireland’s national referendum on abortion because of a boosted post on an abortion-related U.S. Supreme Court case that reached people in Ireland.
“Days after all those articles came out Facebook denied every boosted post,” he said.
Bomberger said he’s wary of government intervention on the one hand, but social-media monopolies are not a good thing either.
“It’s a delicate free-speech issue,” Bomberger said.
Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp and reportedly has made plans to unify these platforms with its Messenger platform. Together this accounts for 2.6 billion users.
Google, the search engine that is projected to dominate 80% of all search ads in 2019, also owns YouTube, which has 1.9 billion users. Breitbart News reported Jan. 16, based on a leaked “internal Google discussion thread,” that abortion was on a YouTube blacklist curated by human beings. Pro-life groups have suspected this had been occurring after abortion activists complained pro-life videos were spreading “misinformation” on abortion.
YouTube announced Jan. 25 it will “begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways.” YouTube stated the move would affect “videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”
With Twitter, Bomberger said, his organization has experiences with “shadow banning,” where posts have not showed up in people’s feeds. Within the past week, he said, Twitter has blocked images on posts with a “sensitive-material warning.” Twitter’s customer service, he said, has been inaccessible for addressing the problem.
“They have no tolerance and don’t allow a true diversity of thought,” he said.
“If no one is seeing your posts, you might as well be invisible.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
Facebook lists these “top-level issues” as candidates for potentially requiring advertiser authorization and labeling for ads targeting the U.S.
- civil rights
- foreign policy
- government reform
- Social Security