Already terrible at enforcing its rules, Facebook let Trump violate its ad policies until a reporter noticed

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Facebook allowed President Donald Trump’s Facebook page to run hundreds of political ads, about first lady Melania Trump’s birthday, that violate Facebook’s ad policies. According to a report by Judd Legum, the text in these ads explicitly addressed women -- a violation of Facebook’s policy that prohibits “content that asserts or implies personal attributes” of the ad viewers, including their gender:

These ads, accessible through the Facebook political ad library, go on and on and on. The campaign appears to be leaning on Melania to bolster Trump’s low support with women. Focusing on Texas, which some Democrats believe is the next swing state, is also an interesting choice.

But these ads also explicitly violate Facebook’s ad guidelines because they include “prohibited content.” Facebook’s rules prohibit ads that reference the “personal attributes” of the people being targeted.

“Ads must not contain content that asserts or implies personal attributes” Facebook’s rules state, including “direct or indirect assertions or implications about a person’s… gender identity.” The phrase “Attention Ladies” at the beginning of each of these ads violates the guidelines.

Twelve hours after Legum published his report, Facebook took down all versions of the Trump ad he had highlighted. These ads were part of a larger listserv building campaign to collect email addresses from supporters, funded by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee. The National Republican Senate Committee and the Great America PAC are also running similar listserv building campaigns on Facebook, calling on supporters to sign a card for Melania’s birthday.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has failed to detect policy violations by advertisers on the platform. In September, Media Matters found a series of ads from right-wing clickbait sites, conspiracy theorists, and extremists which violated Facebook’s policies on false content and discriminatory practices. These ads included: posts from white supremacist Paul Nehlen promoting another white supremacist; anti-Muslim false news; anti-LGBT content; and 9/11 truther, QAnon, and Pizzagate conspiracy theories. Facebook has also come under scrutiny for allowing anti-vaccine pages to run ads containing medical misinformation.

A recent study led by Northeastern University researchers scrutinized the discriminatory distribution and visibility of Facebook ads. The study found that the social media giant’s algorithm takes race and gender into account when deciding which users see which ads. The study comes a few weeks after Facebook settled three civil rights lawsuits and two complaints over ad discriminations.

Facebook’s ad review system primarily relies on automated tools to review ads for policy violations. In addition to failing to flag ad policy violations effectively, this ad review system has shown issues detecting misleading advertisers. Facebook’s “paid for” label in ads -- intended to increase the transparency of political ads by disclosing advertisers -- can be easily bypassed. Vice reporters were able to publish ads for fake PACs using the names of Vice President Mike Pence and the Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez in “paid for” labels. Vice was also able to pose as 100 senators and get approval for all political ads using the senators names in “paid for” labels. More recently, Facebook allowed pages to run ads promoting the GoFundMe campaign to fund the construction of a wall on the southern US border with anonymous “paid for” labels.