The Industry

Something Already Went Wrong With Facebook’s Blackout on Election Ads

Biden stands with his arms raised, shouting at a mic. The word "vote" is on a backdrop behind him.
Biden staffers are angry about a glitch. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

When Facebook decided to ban political ads for the final stretch of the election, executives were probably thinking they’d avoid at least one source of campaign drama. No such luck.

On Thursday, Biden staffers got unusually testy about Facebook after the platform disabled thousands of its ads, with the campaign claiming the problem cost it about $500,000 in projected fundraising revenue. The mass blocking was the result of a glitch in the automated system that Facebook is using to enforce its preelection blackout policy, which prevents users from placing new political ads in the week leading up to the election. According to Facebook, problems arose when advertisers tried making changes to the audience-targeting settings on preexisting ads, which “created new ads that needed to go through approval and delivery before the deadline passed.” The company acknowledged that its instructions to the campaigns on this issue had been unclear.

“We have no sense of the scale of the problem, who it is affecting, and [Facebook’s] plan to resolve it,” said Rob Flaherty, the Biden campaign’s digital director, in a statement. “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.” Staffers have also protested that particularly important ads pointing out that Biden will not raise taxes on people earning more than $400,000, in response to Trump’s false claim that the former vice president is planning to impose a tax hike on middle-class families, have also been pulled. The campaign was reportedly having issues with adjusting ad budgets and spending as well.

Facebook has claimed that the effects of this glitch affected advertisers across the political spectrum. “No ad was paused or rejected by a person, or because of any partisan consideration,” the company said in a blog post. “The technical problems were automated and impacted ads from across the political spectrum and both Presidential campaigns.” The Trump campaign confirmed to Politico that some of its preapproved ads had also been blocked, but didn’t elaborate on the scope of the issue. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action also reported similar problems with roughly 600 of its ads.

This is the first time that Facebook is enforcing a ban on new ads in the days before a presidential election. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that his company is making this move because “in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims.” Facebook will also stop running all political ads indefinitely after the polls close on Nov. 3 in a bid to prevent confusion while the results are being tabulated. Both presidential campaigns ramped up digital ad spending in the week prior to the blackout period, with Trump’s spending $5.75 million and Biden’s spending $8.42 million.

But once the blackout period started, problems were immediately apparent, including to political organizations outside the presidential campaigns, like the conservative anti-Trump group Defending Democracy Together, which said that 75 percent of its ads were blocked. While Biden and Trump can leverage their prodigious resources to reach voters in other ways, the hiccup is having an impact on smaller campaigns that rely on Facebook to get their messages out, according to the nonprofit Tech for Campaigns.

These bans are part of a larger effort by Facebook to stymie the misinformation and chaos that ran rampant on the platform in 2016. Facebook is also running a voting information center that gives people voting tips and is planning to label posts by candidates and campaigns that may try to declare victory before all the results are in. And it’s brought on tens of thousands of content moderators since the last election. Instagram is also going as far as to remove the “Recent” tab from hashtag pages in order to stem the spread of harmful content.

While tech commentators have said that the motivations behind the bans are laudable in theory, there were concerns about how they would play out in practice. Matt Perault, Facebook’s former director of public policy, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Daniel Kreiss wrote in Slate in September that the bans could hamper get-out-the-vote campaigns and disadvantage challenger candidates who don’t have as much organic reach as their incumbent opponents. They also expressed concerns that it could stifle the campaigns’ ability to respond to late-breaking news. They concluded, “While we appreciate that Mark Zuckerberg is attentive to his company’s role in democracy, two months before the most consequential election of our lifetimes isn’t the right time to experiment.”