Supporters said they believed Bloomberg’s vast wealth would insulate him from special interests.
Tucker Higgins for CNBC
The flurry of sponsored meme posts for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg that spread across social media this week may never end up in Facebook’s political ad database.
Several popular accounts on Facebook-owned Instagram posted sponsored content for Bloomberg on Wednesday. The posts appeared to be direct messages between the influencers and Bloomberg that poked fun at his attempt to connect with a younger audience. One post depicts Bloomberg asking an influencer, “Can you make a viral meme to let the younger demographic know I’m the cool candidate?” The posts disclosed sponsorship by Bloomberg’s campaign.
It turns out those posts won’t have to be archived in Facebook’s ad database unless the influencer pays to promote the post itself on Facebook’s platforms (they will still need to disclose the paid partnership). That sets sponsored political content apart from all other types of political ads on Facebook’s platform, which are kept in Facebook’s searchable Ad Library so anyone can see its message as well as its reach and the money put behind it. Facebook launched the tool in March 2019 after government officials discovered how the platform and ones like it were manipulated by foreign actors in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Influencers who post the sponsored content will still have to disclose their paid partnerships and can only publish sponsored posts from authorized political advertisers using Facebook’s branded content tools, a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. Political advertisers must register with Facebook to be authorized to run campaigns, which requires them to submit identification documents and other information.
“Branded content is different from advertising, but in either case we believe it’s important people know when they’re seeing paid content on our platforms,” the spokesperson said in a statement. Unlike standard ads, there are no audience targeting options for branded content, according to Facebook. “After hearing from multiple campaigns, we agree that there’s a place for branded content in political discussion on our platforms.”
The spokesperson confirmed Facebook’s plans, as first reported by BuzzFeed News, to tell its third-party fact-checkers that they should not fact-check speech that is obviously from the politician paying for the content, in line with its policy not to fact-check political ads. Facebook will advise fact-checkers they can audit speech that appears to be from the creators themselves.
The policy will likely rankle politicians and researchers who have pushed for Facebook to be more transparent about who spends money on its platform to push political candidates and messages. Facebook has made strides since the 2016 election in disclosing political advertising, but academics who use Facebook’s Ad Library have said that technical limitations can make it difficult to take a comprehensive look at spending on the platform.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shared her criticism of the policy on Twitter Friday.
“Refusing to catalogue paid political ads because the Bloomberg campaign found a workaround means there will be less transparency for the content he is paying to promote,” she wrote.” Mike Bloomberg cannot be allowed to buy an election with zero accountability.”
Facebook hasn’t always allowed political entities to run branded content. The company previously prohibited such ads by default based on broad policies that excluded political entities from using all types of monetization products on the platform outside of standard advertising, such as subscriptions or ad breaks in videos. Facebook said it did so to avoid being seen as giving contributions to campaigns. But the company said it has decided that concern isn’t relevant for branded content since Facebook doesn’t provide payments through the branded content tool. The spokesperson did not immediately clarify when the policy was changed, but The Verge reported that Facebook did not have guidelines for influencers around sponsored political posts before Friday.
The branded content policy for political campaigns is only applicable in the U.S. for now, and Facebook said it will consider how to evolve its approach moving forward.