New Facebook rules for political ads trip up Florida candidates

More than a dozen Florida candidates and many more political organizations have been affected in the days since the new policy was unveiled this month.
A screenshot of a political advertisement for Republican Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott that was pulled by Facebook because it didn't meet the tech company's new disclosure policies.
A screenshot of a political advertisement for Republican Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott that was pulled by Facebook because it didn't meet the tech company's new disclosure policies.
Published May 30, 2018|Updated June 4, 2018

At first glance, nothing appears unusual about the ad U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis' gubernatorial campaign posted to Facebook on May 22.

There's a picture of President Donald Trump with a quote from Trump's quasi-endorsement of DeSantis — "GREAT" and "FIGHTER" in Trump's signature all-caps emphasis. "Proud to have our president's support!" DeSantis added.

But a couple of days after the Republican's ad posted, Facebook took it down. Why? The campaign didn't say who paid for it.

Facebook recently rolled out changes to how political advertisements will run on the social media platform. For the first time, campaigns, candidates and political organizations will have to include a "Paid for by" line near the top of the post.

The policy has tripped up more than a dozen Florida candidates and many more political organizations in the days since it was unveiled this month, leading to the removal of thousands of dollars worth of paid political advertisements. The ads can be seen in a database of Facebook advertisements, another new feature.

Among the graveyard of posts deemed improperly labeled political ads are posts from candidates for Congress all the way down to county commissioner. Lakeland state Sen. Kelli Stargel made a post promoting a "Stand with Publix" petition — taken down. State Rep. Joe Gruters of Sarasota invited voters to the kickoff event for his state Senate campaign — taken down.

Gov. Rick Scott's campaign for U.S. Senate had three web ads removed for apparently not disclosing who paid for the posts, even though the three videos all featured "Paid for by Rick Scott for Florida" text at the end. All were later reposted with the correct information.

(UPDATE: In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, Facebook now says the Scott ads were flagged erroneously.

"Enforcement is never perfect at launch and we are committed to learning and improving. We regret the error that inadvertently added these ads to the archive.")

Citing the same issue with omitting who paid for the post, Facebook temporarily disabled two of DeSantis' Facebook ads, and similarly required a redo of one from Democratic candidate for governor Chris King.

Meanwhile, several promoted posts that were critical of DeSantis' primary opponent, Republican Adam Putnam, were also taken down for the same reason. For example, the Pasco Democratic Party posted a cartoon of Putnam as Trump's puppet on May 25, but Facebook quickly took it down.

The new disclosure rules come amid intense scrutiny by Congress and the media over how the digital giant let fake news and foreign bots using phony accounts run rampant and sow division leading up to the 2016 election.

"We believe this new level of transparency is good for people and will allow journalists, researchers, NGOs and others to hold campaigns, candidates and organizations accountable for the ads they create," Rob Leathern, Facebook director of products, said on a May 24 conference call.

In addition to the new requirements, Facebook has created a verification process to confirm the identify and location of the source of the advertisement.

The transition has led to some confusion in campaigns, many of which are already in high gear for the midterm elections.

The new requirement that all political ads explicitly disclose who paid for them in a text banner above the post went into effect May 24 — well into campaign season for the August primaries.

"The initial ad was placed before the new Facebook policy went into effect and met their disclaimer requirements at that time," said Avery Jaffe, spokesman for the King campaign. "We understand that Facebook and other platforms are working through their rules and that necessitates frequent changes to their policy."

Democratic digital strategist Kevin Cate said campaigns have had plenty of time to prepare. Cate has worked this cycle for Sen. Bill Nelson and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a candidate for governor.

The changes "have professionalized advertising on this medium where it probably should have been a couple of cycles ago," Cate said.

But the DeSantis campaign said Facebook has gone further, denying one of its online ad buys in April multiple times because of its content. Screenshots shown to the Times/Herald confirm Facebook labeled the ad "Not Approved."

The promoted post in question would have linked to a Breitbart article which addressed a circulating false claim about DeSantis that he had supported food stamps for undocumented immigrants. Breitbart is a far-right online publication whose owners have financially supported DeSantis' campaign. PolitiFact has rated that same claim about food stamps "Pants on Fire."

"Censorship of conservatives is a serious problem across media platforms but especially on social media," said DeSantis campaign spokesman David Vasquez. "It's compounded by the fact that fake news stories are circulated but corrections and fact checking is censored or often underreported. In our case, in trying to fight back fake news, Facebook actually helped to spread it and censor the correction."

Vasquez said the campaign was slapped with violating a specific rule of Facebook's new policies, which disallows "low quality or disruptive content."

Any paid content Facebook deems political is subject to these rules, and the company plans to hire 3,000 to 4,000 individuals to enforce them.
In the meantime, some nonpolitical groups have been ensnared by the policy, including the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Facebook removed ads promoting the department's "Share the road" initiative aimed at bikers, motorcyclists and vehicles. Officials there are vexed as to why they were taken down and they haven't been able to get an answer from Facebook.

Other DHSMV ads on different topics remained on Facebook, said department spokeswoman Beth Frady.

"We're working with our vendor to figure out why and the method to their madness," Frady said. "Obviously, we're not a political entity."