Facebook's Mess of an Election Ad Policy Cost Biden $500,000

Facebook had four years to get ready for this election. It failed.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)​
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears on a screen as he speaks remotely during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Washington. (Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

When Facebook announced it would be taking steps to protect voters from being targeted by misleading ads in the days before the election, the decision was broadly welcomed.

However, those deeply involved with the nitty-gritty of political ads on digital media were worried that Facebook’s long history of making a mess of such plans would cause more problems than it would solve.

On Thursday night, the digital director for Joe Biden’s campaign, Rob Flaherty, issued this statement:


“It is abundantly clear that Facebook was wholly unprepared to handle this election, despite having four years to prepare.”

For several days, a “technical glitch” in Facebook’s systems had seen thousands of Biden campaign ads blocked from the platform, an error that the campaign says cost them $500,000 in donations.

“We find ourselves five days out from Election Day unable to trust that our ads will run properly, or if our opponents are being given an unfair, partisan advantage,” Flaherty said, adding that Facebook was giving “no clarity on the widespread issues that are plaguing all of our ad campaigns since the onset of their new ad restrictions.”

Facebook announced in September that it would ban all new political ads on its platform before the election.  That came into effect on Monday night, but almost immediately there were problems.

While campaigns cannot register new ads, they are still allowed to promote ads that are already in the system. But within hours of the ban coming into effect, the people in charge of six-figure ad campaigns started raising concerns about ads that had been blocked for no reason. 

Priorities USA Action, one of the largest Democratic super PACs, noticed the issue Tuesday morning when 600 pre-approved ads were removed from its platform. Despite repeated attempts to contact Facebook, they didn’t get an answer until Thursday evening, when media attention on the problem began growing.


“It is bad enough that Facebook has spent four years bending over backwards to please Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress,” Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said in a statement Thursday night. “The last two days demonstrate a refusal to act responsibly without public pressure. While we are one of the largest spenders on digital ads in either party, it should not take a public campaign and endless calls to get Facebook to act.”

The Trump campaign confirmed Wednesday that some of its ads were also affected, but they didn’t say Thursday if the issues were persisting.

Facebook finally admitted its error in a blog post Thursday evening, though it also partly blamed the campaigns for failing to understand how the system worked.

“We have identified a number of unanticipated issues affecting campaigns of both political parties,” Facebook said. “Some were technical problems. Others were because advertisers did not understand the instructions we provided about when and how to make changes to ad targeting.”

Facebook said the issues were now resolved, but the Biden campaign said Thursday night that the ability to adjust ad budgets and spending for some Facebook ads — a feature Facebook promised would be available during the final week of the campaign — was still not working.

On Thursday evening, as Facebook was trying to firefight this latest problem, the company announced it had earned over $21 billion in revenue in the third quarter of 2020. And yet, despite all the resources at its disposal, it has once again failed to enforce its own policies designed to protect the integrity of the election.


Facebook’s latest failure raises serious questions about how the company can cope with the deluge of misinformation expected in the coming days, a problem that’s many times greater than the issue of ads.

“A thing worth highlighting is that 80% of the problems with Facebook are on the organic side, not the ads side,” Flaherty tweeted. This ads policy was largely a distraction, but they still are finding a way to get it wrong. The organic side of Facebook is so out of control that ads end up being the only way for people who are fighting organic misinfo have to communicate (not to mention fundraise). we need Facebook ads! It’s the worst!”

Here’s what else is happening in the world of election disinformation:

Instagram bans hashtags

Instagram has announced a new policy that is aimed at stopping the spread of misinformation ahead of the election. The Facebook-owned company on Thursday said U.S. users will no longer see the “Recent” tab when searching for specific hashtags.

“We’re doing this to reduce the real-time spread of potentially harmful content that could pop up around the election,” the company tweeted. And surprise, surprise, within minutes of the policy coming into force, some users have already linked the move to the unfounded conspiracy theory that Big Tech is out to censor conservative voices. 

Others, however, are just upset they can’t view Disney merchandise:

Update on Tucker’s lost documents

On Wednesday night, Fox News host Tucker Carlson reported documents linked to Hunter Biden had been lost in the mail. It led to a lot of questions about why the documents were not emailed, faxed, or copied — but thankfully, Tucker had an update on Thursday night.


It turns out the package didn’t contain documents at all but rather a flash drive containing the documents. Tucker still didn’t have an explanation for why the thumb drive was intercepted, though he now says it’s been recovered. 

As for the documents, Fox News is still supposedly looking at them to ascertain their reliability.

Trolls assemble!

On Thursday, trolls who populate fringe message boards like 4Chan and 8kun (formerly 8chan, and the place where Q of QAnon fame hangs out) attempted to mount a coordinated effort to get users to spread a range of lies aimed at undermining Joe Biden’s campaign. 

On 4chan, a user who goes by the name Operation Redpill Retards, said everyone should share unfounded claims about Hunter Biden. “Send this message and pic to 5 of your friends who aren't getting the news because they're trusting the wrong sources.”

The very same claim was shared on 8kun, with orders to “to carpet-bomb social media with evidences” of the claims. So far there is little evidence that the campaigns have had any impact on mainstream platforms.

A fake dossier from a fake person

Martin Aspen is a Swiss security analyst who was the author of a 64-page dossier about Hunter Biden that went viral on right-wing internet forums last month, before being shared by close aides of Donald Trump.

Problem is, Aspen doesn’t exist.

Aspen’s picture was created using an artificial intelligence face generator and the report was actually written (at least in part) by a blogger and professor named Christopher Balding, according to a report by NBC. Balding says the report was mainly written by someone else, but he did not name the person.

The dossier laid much of the groundwork for the more recent efforts to smear Joe Biden, as it claimed that his son Hunter has a problematic connection to the Communist Party of China.