For months now, Facebook has been hounding me to advertise my book, which comes out in the U.S. later this year. The problem is, my book appears to have been banned from Facebook’s advertising platform.
As a researcher in the field, I was well aware of Facebook’s move earlier this year to ban advertising about cryptocurrencies. At the time, I largely supported the effort, since I agree that much to do with cryptocurrencies is dangerous, unregulated, and scammy. Still, I worried about the unintended consequences of banning an entire category of innovation and knowledge. After all, as John Stuart Mill remarked centuries ago, if you don’t know something, you aren’t in a position to judge whether it’s good or bad.
Then I ran into the filter myself. At the encouragement of my publisher—the U.K.-based Polity Press, which specializes in scholarly works—I created a Facebook Page where I occasionally post updates and teasers about my book. The Facebook advertising platform kept trying to get me to “Promote” and “Boost” my Facebook Page, and when it finally offered a free $5 credit to try it out, I jumped. But as soon as I joined the advertising platform, I was informed that my ad was rejected for vague reasons about its content. I was pretty sure that my book’s title, Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains, was triggering an automatic filter. So, I appealed the decision, claiming that my book was scholarly and written by an expert with a Ph.D. and an academic track record. A human selected the form letter I later received, which notified me that the initial rejection was being upheld and cited the more specific Facebook advertising standards about cryptocurrencies. (In June, Facebook relaxed the initial ban to carve out a small exception for a list of preapproved advertisers—but my book and I were, of course, not among those select few.)
Over the past couple of years—especially since the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the role of the platform in the Myanmar genocide—Facebook has been desperately trying to figure out how to police itself without alienating users. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg recently testified before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, noting that they’re “getting better at finding and combatting” political adversaries, such as Russian propagandists. However, Facebook’s advertising platform has been largely left out of this discussion, but, as it turns out, it is a critical piece of the puzzle.
Facebook advertising is giant. According to some market research, Facebook is responsible for 20 percent of the global market for online advertising. Facebook’s own statistics say that it reaches 1 billion people per month. Facebook ads aren’t just displayed on Facebook.com, either—they are part of a large global network including their own Instagram, but also many third-party newspapers, content publishers, and blogs.
The bind that Facebook is in perfectly mirrors by own book’s peril on its advertising platform. One team inside Facebook needs to actively recruit people to buy, view, and click on its advertisements. This means Facebook must vigorously promote its advertising platform and, implicitly, promote advertisements that work, which means those that stand out from the crowd. The logical end of this business model is exactly where we are today: inundated by false, glamorizing, and dangerous marketing. These news stories and advertisements trade on disinformation and even outright political propaganda. In response, Facebook has turned to vague content guidelines and policing. This means hiring thousands of content moderators to patrol Facebook’s vast network.
Notice, however, that Facebook never considered changing its basic revenue model or its structural design. In the case of cryptocurrencies, Facebook bans advertising for products, like my book, that are designed to inform and educate its own communities, while working on its own cryptocurrency or blockchain product internally. This schism will continue to play out, to the detriment of our toxic and uninformed society, until significant changes are made to how we live, learn, and communicate online, maybe without Facebook. And it seems like the “without Facebook” part is already starting.