Facebook get their knickers in a twist over political ‘influencer’ policies

Facebook appear to be getting themselves into even more of a muddle with their political advertising rules after it emerged that paid for promotions by ‘influencers’ weren’t counting as adverts.

In the USA, Democratic Presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg was found to be paying influencers to promote him. The promotions were tagged as sponsored, with Bloomberg’s name, but weren’t using Facebook’s ‘branded content’ tool because applying for this appeared to be optional.

The change that has been made is that accounts that run political adverts can now apply for this tool. But – and this is the bit that matters – these are still classed as ‘branded content’ and not adverts and so they do not show up in Facebook’s political adverts library. So we can’t be clear about who is running what and this may be a way of sidestepping campaign finance limits. That doesn’t matter (so much) in the USA, of course, but could be much more serious in countries with strict limits.

All this came to my attention thanks to Bridget Barrett (@bridgetobarrett on twitter) and Reform Political Advertising and who raise the following issues:

  • Political adverts aren’t subject to fact checking. But influencers would be. So what rules would apply to paid political promotions?
  • There are certain local rules which Facebook adheres to. One is the ban in Washington State on local and state political adverts. So would influencer branded content be banned there or not?

This latest mess is entirely of Facebook’s making as they are trying to react to what politicians are doing with their platforms. The company has failed to come up with a workable statement of policy regarding political speech and to drive that through at all levels. My suspicion is they are trying to get the 2020 US elections out of the way first. Mark Zuckerberg’s comments at the Munich Security Conference acknowledge that some sort of regulation is coming. But because Facebook is on the back foot, I suspect this will all get messier for the company rather than simpler.