Facebook’s apparent effort to censure political ads has resulted in the social media giant reportedly unintentionally blocking messages about vaccine information.
Politico reported that the company’s policies have resulted in ads banned from cities, health care providers, and community and faith-based groups that are promoting COVID-19 shots.
A Politico review of banned ads from last September reportedly showed that “Paid-for messages from at least 110 groups aimed at raising awareness of how the vaccines work or where to get inoculated were flagged and sent to Facebook’s register of political messages…”
While the ads’ sponsors can appeal if their promotions are taken down, the process could be too much of a burden in addition to dealing with other issues that arise regarding vaccine distribution and new strains of the coronavirus.
Politico reported that this has “led some public health experts to question if Facebook can be a viable forum for information on the pandemic as it faces pressure to combat anti-vaccination forces that have been prevalent on its platform.”
Mary Hastings is the executive administrator of Orland Township, Illinois, which had two ads blocked this month. The restrictions reportedly “made it very difficult for the township in our efforts to inform our residents about important information regarding Covid-19 registration and updates,” she said. “This is very unfair.”
A separate Politico review found that the issues aren’t only within the United States. Facebook reportedly mislabeled ads from European Union institutions, as well as European governments. They identified the ads as political messages, but the posts were usually regarding “public awareness campaigns around the pandemic and the fallout from Brexit.” These “were lumped with far-right partisan groups, mainstream political parties and other political campaigners.”
Facebook admitted that it has misidentified some ads and said that it was restoring two to the ad rotation. The two reinstated ads come from the Centers for Disease Control and the Forsyth County, N.C. department of public health.
Facebook said in a statement, “While we have temporarily paused ads about social issues, elections or politics, we continue to allow ads about Covid-19 that promote vaccine efficacy, and have made our guidance to advertisers on how to run them publicly available.”
In an attempt to provide transparency and fight against misinformation, Facebook levied restrictions on political ads during the 2020 election cycle.
Politico reported, “Ads from public officials are banned outright, while some others from advocacy groups are allowed but require ‘paid for’ disclaimers. But in casting its net, the site has snagged routine notices about the availability and effectiveness of vaccines and about the course of the pandemic.”
While Facebook has said that it is attempting to share authoritative information on vaccinations, its restrictions have also negatively impacted institutions’ efforts to promote such information.
Politico reported, “A group of CDC ads for flu shots was flagged for noting certain people may be susceptible to serious flu-related complications. Facebook later acknowledged its decision was incorrect.”
University of Utah law professor RonNell Andersen Jones said,“The choices they make about speech … unquestionably have a massive impact on what it is we’re all talking about and what we’re seeing and passing on to others…While the company has said it’s trying to promote authoritative public health messaging — and also generally upholding free speech — the long list of banned ads raise the question of how effective they are in realizing that goal.”
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