Wherein Facebook Messes Up Elections By Trying Not To Mess Up Elections

from the early-bird-gets-the-political-ad-buy dept

A few months ago I suggested that calling Facebook a bull in a china shop might not be fair to bulls. I fear the suggestion remains apt, as Facebook throws its considerable weight around in ways that, while potentially well-meaning, leaves all sorts of chaos in its wake. The latest evidence of this tendency relates to its recent announcement of policies designed to limit who can place political ads on Facebook.

The problem is, that’s what it’s done: limit who can place ads on Facebook. But according to the Verge, all it’s done is limit the ability for SOME people to post political ads. As in, only SOME of the candidates in any particular race.

The Verge article notes that the Mississippi primary is set for June 5. But in one particular race for Congress, only the incumbent’s authentication paperwork is in order, so only he is able to buy ads. As the day of the election draws near, his challenger finds himself locked out of being able to advertise through the medium.

E. Brian Rose is a Republican candidate for Congress in Mississippi, and is a primary challenger to the incumbent Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS). Up until yesterday, Rose said, Facebook had been a critical part of his campaign strategy. He amassed more than 6,000 followers on his official page, using Facebook ads to target voters in hundreds of narrowly defined demographic targets.

Yesterday, Rose?s campaign planned to buy 500 different Facebook ads. The first batch were approved shortly before the new rules took effect. But when Rose went to buy the remainder, he received a message from Facebook saying his ads had not been authorized. Rose filled out the required online forms attesting to his identity. At the end, Facebook said it would send Rose an authorization code in the mail. He was told it would arrive in 12 to 15 days ? by which point the election would be over.

It’s a fair read of the story that the challenger screwed up: if the incumbent was able to register, then so should have the challenger. But even so, it still looks like Facebook handled the rule change poorly, both in its timing (mid-race in the critical days leading up to an election), and with too drastic a change too dependent on its successful promotion that left too much to chance despite the serious stakes.

Facebook began allowing political advertisers to start the verification process on April 23rd. The company promoted the new process with a blog post and messages inside Facebook directed at administrators of political pages. In May, it also sent emails to page administrators advising them of the changes.

The challenger says he didn’t get the notices about the change. It’s a contention that seems plausible: even assuming there were no issues with the messages actually being sent out, or ending up caught in a spam filter, they would have arrived in campaign inboxes in the midst of what surely were busy days full of priorities more important than keeping up with Facebook notifications. Even assuming that authentication is the key to addressing political ad-buy abuse, an effective authentication solution should not have risked locking out live candidates in pending elections. The implementation of any solution should produce greater benefit than cost, which does not seem to be the case here. Because while it may be commendable that Facebook is trying to reduce the manipulation by outsiders on America’s political campaigns, it accomplishes little if in the process of trying to reduce one candidate’s unfair advantage, it ends up creating another. It appears Facebook should have done more to anticipate what might go wrong with its new system before switching over to it, but the lesson here is not just for Facebook but for those fond of pressuring Facebook to do something, anything, to change its existing policies because it turns out that sometimes doing just anything may be worse than doing nothing.

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Companies: facebook

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Comments on “Wherein Facebook Messes Up Elections By Trying Not To Mess Up Elections”

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Anonymous Coward says:

OR could be Deliberate Incompetence! To avoid regulation.

The notion that corporations are incompetent and shouldn’t be required to “police” sites because of all the horrible side-effects is one of your and Masnick’s favorite dodges.

I’m sure that if executives were tossed into jail, or even Facebook fined a hundred million per such problem as you lay out here that it’d be done perfectly from then on.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: OR could be Deliberate Incompetence! To avoid regulation.

Or, you know, we could go back in time decades because of ignorance you are suggesting to be applied and companies simply shut down or devolve into something way less useful to avoid liability.

When we are talking about policing sites corporations are incompetent. You are incompetent. I am incompetent. I don’t want you deciding what’s good or not as much as you don’t want me deciding what’s good or not because we clearly disagree.

Instead of trying to regulating what can’t be solved like that we should start investing in better educating newer generations at school. You know, check for references, exercise healthy cynicism, use empathy and tolerance with those different than you etc etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: OR could be Deliberate Incompetence! To avoid regulation.

You think section 230 exists because corporations are incompetent?

I thought it was due to the ridiculous task of humans reviewing each and every user submittal against a constantly changing list of things that said user should not be doing on the website. Doing this is, of course, impossible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: OR could be Deliberate Incompetence! To avoid regulation.

This is why nobody bothers pleasing you. Even on an article where Facebook is literally criticized, you bitch about it.

Funnily enough, when the RIAA violates copyright it’s hugs and kisses. But mention Google or Facebook in a sentence and you’re screaming like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Wonder why?

Ninja (profile) says:

A solution would be not to allow any political ads so nobody would be harmed?

Or just leave it alone and don’t try to interfere?

And maybe make political advertisement forbidden and let the candidates build their voting base by actually presenting their plans and creating forums for discussion where people participate actively instead of being fed bullshit?

No seriously, I’m not sure how to address the current lack of communications channels between peoples in different political spectrum but we should be discussing this. The polarization, division will inevitably end in disaster for everybody.

JD says:

There are ALWAYS elections

it still looks like Facebook handled the rule change poorly, both in its timing (mid-race in the critical days leading up to an election)

Not necessarily to defend Facebook, but here’s the calendar of primary elections in the U.S. in 2018:


So if Facebook wanted to find a time to roll this out which wasn’t in the 3 weeks before an election — given a few days for the candidate to test it out and then 12-15 days for the postal fallback — here are the full list of dates in calendar year 2018 which would work:

  • before February 13th;
  • between March 21st and April 16th; and
  • between September 14th and October 16th.

Every other day during 2018 is within 3 weeks of a federal primary election.

Anonymous Coward says:

the natural outcome

The more byzantine Facebook’s ad-placement system becomes, the more the system will tend to favor incumbents, who historically have enjoyed substantial systemic advantages over challengers in winning elections — as well as successfully navigating through all the minefields in order to get through the election process.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: the natural outcome

… the more the system will tend to favor incumbents…

And the more the incumbents will tend to disfavor robust anti-trust enforcement in the market for political advertising.

15 U.S. Code § 2 – Monopolizing trade a felony; penalty

Every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, shall be deemed guilty of a felony . . .

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