Last Thursday, Showtime put out a string of trailers promoting its new documentary series The Fourth Estate, which follows a group of New York Times reporters as they cover the White House. The ads were eye-catching and edited fast to make the work of journalism look as dramatic as possible. But when they reached Facebook, something unusual happened: after taking more than $1,000 to promote the videos, Facebook sent Showtime’s money back. The ads were too political to run without further verification.
You can see the proof on Facebook’s new political ads database, where Showtime’s trailers are currently listed as inactive. “After the ad started running, we determined that the ad had political content and required the label,” the notice reads. “The ad was taken down.”
This is part of a wave of ad suspension that began when Facebook started enforcing new rules for political advertising last week. Aimed at preventing political interference from Russian trolls and other foreign groups, the rules require strict verification for any account promoting political content. That verification typically requires a government-issued ID to trigger a verification code sent to a US mailing address, a process that takes several days and significant coordination. The system is meant to be a minor inconvenience for a political campaign, but those same rules also apply to neutral news content, and they seem to have taken many publications by surprise. A limited search by The Verge found 85 news posts that had fallen afoul of the rules in the first week of enforcement, including seemingly innocuous stories on graduation speeches or the British royal family.
The blocks have already affected some of the largest media organizations on the web. A Vice News post on Donald Trump’s canceled North Korea summit fell victim to the same filter as the Showtime ads; ultimately it was pulled from promotion after Facebook classified the ads as political. The same mechanism canceled promotion for a Vox podcast on a recent labor ruling by the Supreme Court, as well as an Asia Times op-ed defending America’s diplomatic posture toward Iran.
The idea that news outlets should verify themselves as political advertisers has proven controversial. When Facebook first proposed its guidelines, the company met with serious objections from the News Media Alliance, a trade group representing nearly 2,000 news organizations. “Your plan to group quality publishers alongside political advocacy, which the ad archive will do, dangerously blurs the lines between real reporting and propaganda,” the group wrote to Zuckerberg in an open letter. “It is a fundamental mischaracterization of journalism that threatens to undermine its ability to play its critical role in society as the fourth estate.” A subsequent Bloomberg report described Facebook as shaken by the criticism but unsure of how to respond.