Everyone's Overreacting To The Wrong Thing About Facebook (Briefly) Blocking Elizabeth Warren's Ads

from the again-and-again dept

I’ve made it clear that I don’t think much of Elizabeth Warren’s big plan to “break up big tech,” which seemed not particularly well thought out and unlikely to accomplish its actual goals. Even so, I certainly cringed upon hearing the news that Facebook had blocked an ad that Warren’s team had taken to promote the plan. I mean, come on. Here is Warren, talking about how Facebook is too powerful and can potentially influence policy by choosing what it allows and what it doesn’t allow… and Facebook up and hands Warren the most beautiful gift she could ever hope for: blocking her own ad for her policy to break up Facebook. Basically everyone immediately spun the story as Facebook trying to censor this call to break up itself.

It sure looked bad.

Of course, the reality, again, is a lot more nuanced. And, while everyone will ignore this (and I’m sure some people will make bogus accusations in the comments), the reality is that this isn’t proof of Facebook’s nefarious attempts to censor people it doesn’t like or messages it doesn’t like. It’s proof of the impossibility of content moderation at scale. As Facebook explained, the original ad violated a Facebook policy that had nothing to do with the message it was sending: you’re apparently not allowed to use Facebook’s logo in an ad:

?We removed the ads because they violated our policies against use of our corporate logo,” the spokesperson said. “In the interest of allowing robust debate, we are restoring the ads.?

This is, indeed, true. If you look at Facebook’s ad policies it shows the following:

You are, in fact, not allowed to use a Facebook logo in an ad. Warren’s ad violated that. Of course, in this context, it looks really, really bad. As Buzzfeed’s Ryan Mac noted, this policy — “which was ostensibly put in place for good reason, is interpreted without nuance.”

Yup. Except, here’s the thing, as we discussed on our podcast last year, it is literally impossible to invoke nuance when discussing moderation of content at scale. To handle the kind of scale that Facebook and other giant platforms deal with, you need to have thousands (and maybe tens of thousands) of content moderators, and they need to be trained in a manner that they will apply the same rules pretty consistently (which is already an impossible standard). In such a world, there is literally no room for nuance. A system that allows nuance is one that allows arbitrary decision making… leading to just more complaints of inconsistent content moderation.

And, frankly, for all of Warren’s attempt to frame this as evidence that Facebook has “too much power” and is “dominated by a single censor,” what actually played out suggests why that’s inaccurate. These ads weren’t getting much attention. Indeed, they had almost no money behind them. According to Buzzfeed, these ads weren’t designed to reach a wide audience:

Facebook?s ad archive shows that the four ads had less than $100 in backing each, with three garnering fewer than 1,000 impressions and one garnering between 1,000 and 5,000 impressions.

And then what happened? The ads got taken down, and rather being “censored,” the story went crazy viral through other sources, almost as if the Warren campaign maybe found some silly rule to violate just to make this kind of thing happen…. And, of course, the Streisand Effect then guaranteed that for basically a tiny ad spend, a ton more people now became aware of these ads.

I fully expect that the details and nuance here will be ignored by most — and we’ll keep hearing for months (or, possibly, years) about how this somehow “proves” Facebook either “censors critics” or is too dominant and can stifle a message. And, yet, all of the details show something very, very different. Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well, and when Facebook does (for totally different reasons) try to stifle a message (after receiving tons of pressure from people like Elizabeth Warren to better police political ads…), it suddenly became headline news across the political and tech news realms.

Again, there are all sorts of reasons to be concerned about Facebook’s market position. And I’d love to see more competition in the market. But, can we at least not jump on the easy narrative when it’s wrong, even if it “feels” good?

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Comments on “Everyone's Overreacting To The Wrong Thing About Facebook (Briefly) Blocking Elizabeth Warren's Ads”

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109 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

It’s proof of the impossibility of content moderation at scale.

it is literally impossible to invoke nuance when discussing moderation of content at scale.

Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well.

You keep making this point–and I agree, it’s true–but you never draw any conclusions from it.

Content moderation at scale is impossible, and therefore… what should happen?

Thad (profile) says:

And then what happened? The ads got taken down, and rather being "censored," the story went crazy viral through other sources, almost as if the Warren campaign maybe found some silly rule to violate just to make this kind of thing happen….

Or Facebook wanted to take the ads down and maybe found some silly rule that they violated to make that kind of thing happen.

JP the Recurring Zombie (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Or Facebook wanted to take the ads down and maybe found some silly rule that they violated to make that kind of thing happen.

Or maybe Warren’s team wanted to make the ad go viral without spending a lot of ad money and purposefully broke Facebook’s ad rules in order to get it taken down so they could claim Facebook was censoring the message …

Or someone didn’t RTFM about ad posting.

Matthew Cline (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

From the movie A Man for All Seasons:

WILLIAM ROPER: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

SIR THOMAS MORE: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Anonymous Coward says:

Umm.

Maybe I’m not understanding it right, but if I owned a website, and someone made an ad to put on my website that tries to start a process in taking down my website, or making it less popular or does some kind of damage to my website…why would I allow it on my website? It’s my website…I’m in charge of the website. I decide what goes on it. Why would I want something that could in the long run completely change it or one day make it weaker or make less money? I’m pretty sure the terms of service says they can decide what ads go on it anyway.

That’s like common sense isn’t it?

Qwertygiy says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s not "special status".

The brand they’re talking about in "Brand Usage" is their own brand. They’re granting you limited rights to use their registered trademarks, in ways that you might not be allowed to in any other ad services.

The logos and trademarks of other brands — even the ways accepted for the Facebook trademark — would generally be forbidden as a matter of copyright and trademark laws, even if not explicitly forbidden by Facebook policy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

They’re granting you limited rights to use their registered trademarks, in ways that you might not be allowed to in any other ad services.

It says you "may make limited reference…for the purpose of clarifying the destination of the ad", which sounds a lot like nominative use. And it says you can’t write "FB", which is not something they’d normally have any right to prevent.

What rights are they actually granting that advertisers don’t already have? It’s entirely special status.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Umm.

To paraphrase a famous quote from Jurassic Park, don’t spend so much time thinking about whether you can that you forget to consider whether you should.

If you’re going to appeal to common sense, consider this: When the argument that someone makes is that they have too much power to censor and a history of abusing it, is it not common sense that using your power to silence this ad is (or simply really really looks like, even if this isn’t factually the case) completely proving your opponent’s point?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Umm.

Friend I say this honestly and of good faith and I can’t believe I am defending Facebook… let me sound like I am in the same situation for a minute…

The person putting up ads against me is calling for a break up of my buisness during an election year in my own business and after said thing is done it would become little more then a small rally cry of what was a achieved during time in office for claps until the next elections.

I’m not betting exisance on politics.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Umm.

Again, when taking down the ad can be used as evidence to further the agenda the ad was attempting to drive, it’s not a particularly good idea.

Sometimes you’re in a situation where there are no good options. Hypothetically, this could happen to you just because, and then life sucks for you. In reality–particularly in the business world–it usually happens as a result of you having done something to earn it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Umm.

Here’s the thing though, they’re doing so by barely throwing any money at all at those ads, and almost no-one is actually seeing the ads calling for your destruction. As it stands those ads are a minor annoyance; sure they’re calling for your company to be broken up, but basically no-one even knows the ads exist, so they aren’t likely to be very dangerous to you.

After you kill the ads though suddenly lots of people are aware of them, and your own actions have just provided a perfect example to be used against you. A minor annoyance suddenly became a much bigger problem, all because of what you did.

If the decision to be made, ‘leave it up’ or ‘kill it’ is centered around ‘which option is better for the company?’ then the former is much less damaging to the company, and a much smarter move.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Umm.

I think this back and forth is the whole point.

They leave up the ad even though it violates the rules with the Facebook logo. "Well you let this ad run and it violates the rules." Looks bad.
They take down the ad because it violates the rules, people say "See!? See?! Too much power! Censorship!!" Looks bad.

Mike’s right. This is impossible. Nobody wins like this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Umm.

I still don’t get how this is a perfect example of anything deserving of being "broken up". Businesses reserve the right to refuse service, it’s in every EULA for every online service, too. Why should Facebook or any other company host political calls to damage the company under any circumstances?

Exercising First Amendment rights (and they are, particularly in this case since the "customer" is a government employee) is perfectly acceptable. Since when I exercising one’s rights grounds for punishment?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Umm.

Logically, it isn’t, however as a cheap, nonsensical emotional ploy it could be very effective, especially with people already inclined to be against the company/companies in question.

Politician calls for companies to be broken up, claims they have too much power and control, and are using it abusively.

Politician puts out ad critical of companies.

Company being criticized pulls ad because it violates their ToS.

Politician points to ad being pulled and claims that that’s evidence that companies are silencing dissent and need to be controlled more, so that they can’t do that any more.

The fact that the ad was pulled not because it was critical of the company but because it violated their ToS for ads is conveniently never mentioned.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Umm.

I was looking at it from the "business" standpoint. Coca-cola isn’t going to let an ad run that says "Coca-cola is bad" I’m hearing they’re proving the point that they have "too" much power. It’s like yeah they do have the power to remove you from their home. It’s their home. If you want to live there you don’t bite the owner of the house.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: 'Oh darn, how'd that filter-triggering thing get in there...?'

Facebook’s ad archive shows that the four ads had less than $100 in backing each, with three garnering fewer than 1,000 impressions and one garnering between 1,000 and 5,000 impressions.

With numbers like that, yeah, I strongly suspect you hit it right on the head. Why bother spending a lot of money to promote the ad when you can include something that will allow someone else to ‘promote’ it for you in a way that (falsely) seems to support the ad?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I’m sorry, I thought the constant barrage of "Pocohontas" nonsense aimed at her had pervaded everyone else’s news feed, too.

She claimed her race as Native American in college, and in early job applications — even her application for passing the bar. She defended/denied saying "Well, I am just part Native American, but I didn’t know I was mistaken by Harvard to be a minority." Several Native American tribes protested, saying she holds no citizenship in any tribe and is not legally a Native American. This she admitted was true, but she decided to take a DNA test anyway… proving she had some native American ancestry but not of the region or amount she had claimed.

And of course the Republicans latched on like they did for Obama and made a big hoopla, but unlike Obama the evidence is not in her favor.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2019/02/07/elizabeth-warren-dna-results-percentage-cherokee-nation-native-american-column/2799968002/

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The whole saga is indeed deeply embarrassing for her, and her handling of it has been consistently terrible. But it’s also a very specific situation surrounding a very specific cultural issue. Don’t get me wrong, it reflects poorly on her – but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say it establishes a pattern that means we should suspect dishonesty and subterfuge of her at every turn. Feels like you’d have to already want to believe that, to let that be your foundational evidence.

And I even think the idea that her team hoped the ad would get taken down for the signal boost is entirely plausible (far more plausible than Facebook intentionally targeting it to suppress its message, given how stupid that would be) – but honestly I’d consider that plausible for any political campaign, whether it was run by a paragon of honesty or a pathological liar.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

It’s not the part about the specific cultural issue, it’s that she lied about it for political gain, then when found out, lied that she’d lied about it.

"Oh, I didn’t ever say I was. I didn’t know they hired me because they thought I was a minority; I don’t know why they thought I was."

Being dishonest for the sake of attracting attention to oneself for the advancement of one’s career. That seems like it applies to this situation pretty well, regardless of the actual topic that was being discussed.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here we’re talking about recent bans issued by Facebook.

I’m still calling for the anti-trust sledgehammer for the companies repeated TOS three-card-monte to strip privacy from users without clarity, then proceeding to routinely mishandle data.

Blocking ability of users of their platform to access political messaging from a Presidential Candidate is just one more in a very long list of over-steps.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

"Blocking ability of users of their platform to access political messaging from a Presidential Candidate"

I’m a bit more concerned about their lack of integrity with respect to an idividual’s data that they seem to vacuum up, package and sell all the while trying to convince everyone that the respect your privacy – lol.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

HUMAN moderation of this content is not.

OK, how could humans have moderated (or declined to moderate) this issue in a way that would be consistent with Facebook policy, not detrimental to the public good, and not detrimental to Facebook’s reputation? Feel free to imagine that Facebook has millions of full-time highly trained moderators.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

OMG FACEBOOK IS THE DEVIL!!!!!!!!!!!!

We’re holding children in cages.
We’re hiring pedophiles, serial killers, & rapists to watch over them.
We’ve got agents placing bugs in citizens homes b/c they are brown.
We’ve got secret laws being used to hide wrongdoing.
We’ve got courts & oversight who see nothing wrong with hosting & encouraging the creation of more child porn.

But lets keep focusing on facebook instead of admitting its just another dog whistle to distract people from the simple fact that no one is minding the store, we have no rights, & even video showing a cop shooting us in the back of the head while cuffed and on our knees doesn’t guarantee he will even be tried let alone convicted.

Society is a shitshow, and instead of trying to affix the blame on FB or Twitter or tech… how about we fix the fscking problems first then worry about where to assign the blame… not that we will every accept our culpability in handing them the right to do whatever they want to ‘bad people’ as long as they keep us safe, ignoring that when they run out of real and imaginary bad people they just start deciding we’re the bad people.

Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

A dog whistle is nothing special, it’s just a whistle that produces a sound in the ultrasonic auditory spectrum. And if a person can hear it they have an above average auditory hearing range, which also means that using it as a metaphor for distracting people is seriously flawed since a very small fraction of the population can hear one.

Also, your syllogism doesn’t make sense.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It’s not a perfect analogy, because analogies are never perfect. The idea of a "dog whistle" is that the surface meaning of the words is innocent, while the (small) target audience understands another meaning. The difficulty with analyzing such things is that there’s always the chance that there was no deeper meaning intended and it actually was innocent. Which is of course why people use such language – plausible deniability.

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