Over the past four years, Facebook has made a big show of demonstrating how much it cares about democracy and how much it’s doing to combat election interference or fake news. It has assembled “war rooms” and published white papers. It has hired thousands of content moderators (as in, they’re looking at content; they’re actually miserable). And the company is constantly reminding people that it’s spending more on security now than the total of its revenue at the beginning of the decade. Big numbers! Facebook cares!
It’s too bad that all it took was one aspirational billionaire to reveal most of that effort as completely ineffective.
Over the past couple of weeks, candidate Mike Bloomberg has rolled out an aggressive program of buying endorsements on social media. He isn’t just asking celebrities and other mayors (of smaller cities) for their backing or posting weird tweets: Last week, a number of popular Instagram accounts with tens of millions of followers rolled out jokey sponcon for the former New York City mayor. Today, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Bloomberg’s campaign will go one step further by paying regular social-media users to post about the candidate on the platforms.
From the Journal:
The campaign is hiring more than 500 “deputy digital organizers” to work 20 to 30 hours a week and receive $2,500 a month, the documents show. In exchange, those workers are expected to promote Mr. Bloomberg to everyone in their phones’ contacts by text each week and make social-media posts supporting him daily, the documents show.
That’s more than $1.25 million Bloomberg is spending just to kinda shotgun his name all over social media and into group chats. This comes in addition to a reported program for “microinfluencers,” i.e., people with small follower counts, whom Bloomberg would pay $150 in exchange for their support. That’s a lot for any campaign, but it’s nothing for the former mayor, who seems more than willing to throw money at the wall and see what sticks.
Bloomberg’s Instagram-sponcon and digital-organizer programs have laid bare the fact that Facebook, for all its work in protecting elections and democracy, etc., has absolutely no clue how to stop well-funded operations with endless resources from exploiting loopholes in Facebook’s rules.
Facebook has said it will not fact-check ads from politicians, but a politician buying an endorsement from an Instagram account is not necessarily, as Facebook would define it, an ad. As BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick outlined last week, Facebook “will tell third-party fact-checkers that if the speech in the sponcon is from the politician paying for the content, it won’t be fact-checked. But if the speech is in the voice of the influencer who made it, it will be.” In other words, an influencer who copy-pastes a press release will not be fact-checked; an influencer who just writes something nice about Bloomberg will be.
In addition, Facebook maintains a public archive of political ads. To make it into the archive, the account in question has to pay Facebook to place a post into the feeds of more users. Bloomberg’s paying a popular account to endorse him is not technically a political ad on Facebook, because none of that money went to Facebook directly. That keeps it out of the archive and makes it subject to less public scrutiny. The campaign gets by on a technicality — paying a Facebook account but not Facebook the company for a political ad.
In paying Instagram influencers this way, Bloomberg has figured out how to do an end run around Facebook’s election policies, skirting procedure on fact-checks, disclosure, and transparency.
If all that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Bloomberg is executing the political-advertising equivalent of a corporate shell game, figuring out what he can get away with without technically violating platform policies and learning whom to pay for social-media traction without having to disclose that he’s doing so.
Consider the aforementioned digital-organizer program the Journal reported. By technically employing the people who post about the candidate on social media and messaging their phone contacts, the Bloomberg campaign doesn’t have to disclose that the people are being paid. Again, from the Journal:
A Facebook spokeswoman said posts by outside “content creators” would require labels if a campaign paid for them, but that posts by campaign employees wouldn’t need to be labeled as ads. The company didn’t address how it would categorize posts by employees paid to promote content to their personal social networks.
Another way of thinking about this problem is that it’s as if Bloomberg were employing 500 press secretaries. Does a press secretary speaking on behalf of a politician constantly need to name the person they work for? Probably not. Five hundred of them being paid to text friends and post online should probably need to disclose it somewhere, however! The Facebook policies on campaign-employee disclosure apply to a world in which cash-strapped campaigns have a limited number of employees. Those policies can’t rein in a billionaire with virtually limitless funds who can “hire” people on a whim.
Further complicating this is Facebook’s policy of removing what it calls “coordinated authentic behavior.” Facebook defines this as multiple accounts that misrepresent their owners working together to further an agenda (a Russian troll farm pretending to be a group of Americans who care about gun control, for instance). Facebook has never been able to fully explain what separates coordinated inauthentic behavior from, say, a PR agency surreptitiously planting stories on behalf of a client — which Facebook admitted paying for in late 2018 and Mark Zuckerberg has described as “typical.”
Bloomberg has managed to exploit loopholes and vagueness in various Facebook policies. That Facebook’s rules for political ads and fact-checking are clearly toothless and that Facebook doesn’t recognize how Bloomberg’s strategy may run afoul of its current rules on coordinated inauthentic behavior make it clear that Facebook’s policies are not robust. Or maybe Facebook is just willing to bend the rules for certain clients — like, I dunno, a billionaire named Mike who’s spending exponentially more on Facebook ads than any other Democratic candidate is.
Facebook has long given the excuse that its policies need to operate at scale, that it needs one-size-fits-all solutions instead of bespoke ones. It is ironic that Mike Bloomberg, thanks to his billions of dollars, is able to single-handedly test these policies at scale, crafting multiple social-media initiatives that prod and poke at Facebook’s rules from many angles. And he has exposed them as labyrinthine and ineffective. Good thing we’ve still got uuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhh nine months until Election Day.