Facebook now allows paid political messages that manage to exploit its ad loophole

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Facebook has decided to allow a type of paid political message that had sidestepped many of the social network’s rules governing political ads.

The policy change comes days after billionaire US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg exploited a loophole to run humorous messages promoting his campaign on the accounts of popular Instagram personalities followed by millions of younger people.

The change involves what Facebook calls “branded content” — sponsored items posted by ordinary users who are typically paid by companies or organisations. Advertisers pay the influential users directly to post about their brand.

Facebook makes no money from such posts and does not consider them advertising. As a result, branded content is not governed by Facebook’s advertising policies, which require candidates and campaigns to verify their identity with a US ID or mailing address and disclose how much they spent running each ad.

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Until 14 February, Facebook tried to deter the use of paid posts through influential users as political messages. Specifically, it barred political campaigns from using a tool designed to help advertisers run branded posts on Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

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This rule change will allow campaigns in the US to use this tool, provided they have been authorised by Facebook to run political ads and disclose who paid for the sponsored posts.

The Bloomberg campaign took the unconventional step of paying social media influencers to post Bloomberg memes using their Instagram accounts. Different versions of the sponsored posts from the Bloomberg campaign ran on more than a dozen influential Instagram accounts, each of which has millions of followers.

That effort skirted many of the rules that tech companies have imposed on political ads to safeguard US elections from malicious foreign and domestic interference and misinformation.

Online political ads have been controversial, especially after it was revealed Russia used them in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. In response, Facebook has rolled out a number of rules to prevent a repeat, though it has declined to fact-check political ads and refuses to ban even blatantly false messages.

The Bloomberg campaign’s memes showed the 78-year-old candidate, in a tongue-in-cheek awkward fashion, chatting with popular social media influencers with names like Tank Sinatra, asking them to help him raise his profile among younger folk.

“Can you post a meme that lets everyone know I’m the cool candidate?” Bloomberg wrote in one of the exchanges posted by an account with nearly 15 million followers on Instagram. The candidate then sent a photo of him wearing baggy chino shorts, an orange polo shirt and a zip-up waistcoat.

The account then replied: “Ooof that will cost like a billion dollars.” Bloomberg responded by asking where to send the money.

The campaign declined to say how much it paid for the sponsored posts, or if it had more of them in the works.

The posts did not appear in Facebook’s ad transparency library, which catalogues the political ads that campaigns buy directly from Facebook or Instagram, and tells users how much was spent on them.

Bloomberg’s campaign told the Associated Press on Thursday that Instagram does not currently require it to disclose that information on the sponsored posts it ran earlier this week.

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