Facebook decided Friday to allow a type of paid political message that had sidestepped many of the social network's rules governing political ads.
Its policy change came days after presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg exploited a loophole to run such 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 organizations. Advertisers pay the influential users directly to post about their brand.
No money for Facebook
Facebook makes no money from such posts and does not consider them advertising. As a result, branded content isn't governed by Facebook's advertising policies, which require candidates and campaigns to verify their identity with a U.S. ID or mailing address and disclose how much they spent running each ad.
Until Friday, 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. Friday's rule change will now allow campaigns in the U.S. to use this tool, provided they've been authorized 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 — individuals with huge followings — 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 U.S. elections from malicious foreign and domestic interference and misinformation. Online political ads have been controversial, especially after it was revealed Russia used them to try to influence the 2016 presidential election. In response, Facebook has rolled out rules to prevent a repeat of that, 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 called F*** Jerry, which has nearly 15 million followers on Instagram. The candidate then sent a photo of him wearing baggy chino shorts, an orange polo and a zip-up vest.
F*** Jerry's account then replied, “Ooof that will cost like a billion dollars.'' Bloomberg responded by asking where to send the money.
Looking to broaden audience
With the sponsored posts, Bloomberg's campaign said it was reaching those who might not be normally interested in the day-to-day developments of politics.
“You want to engage people at every platform and you want them to feel like they're not just getting a canned generic statement,'' campaign spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said of the campaign's strategy.
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 catalogs 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 require the campaign to disclose that information on the sponsored posts it ran earlier this week.