Facebook’s Ad Policy Prevents a Unitarian Church From Promoting a Black Lives Matter Concert Before the Concert Happens

In March of 2019, James Dargan, a soloist in the choir of the Unitarian Church of All Souls (and, full disclosure, a friend of this post’s author) was set to perform a recital called “Oh Glory.” Afterward the performance, he and Rev. Audette Fulbright would lead a discussion on “diversity, activism, and maintaining a welcoming community for all people.” Fulbright tried to promote the event on Facebook and ran awry of Facebook’s policy on ads. By the time it was sorted out, the event had already happened.

Dargan had a simple poster for the event, one with his headshot, the time and location of the event, his name and the pianists, and the words “A Black Lives Matter Concert.” It’s that last phrase that probably caused the problem. Rev. Fulbright tried, as many would for an event, to promote the concert on Facebook, using that poster. However, she ended up finding that she couldn’t do so. She was under the impression that “because it says Black Lives Matter, Facebook will not allow it to be advertised/promoted.”

Further contact with Facebook revealed something slightly different, but no less frustrating. Facebook’s ad policy has extra steps for what it calls “Ads Related to Politics or Issues of National Importance.” In certain countries, ads that fall under this description must go through an extra “ad authorization process.” According to Facebook, this is meant to “increase ad transparency” and as part of “election integrity.”

Facebook’s page listing “Issues of National Importance” is a delight. It divides them into “United States,” “European Union,” and “Other countries not listed above.” Under the United States heading are the “top-level issues that will be considered to require advertiser authorization.” The list of issues includes “crime,” “health,” “poverty,” and, most broadly, “values.” Taken together, the list involves basically anything that isn’t just selling a product, but you could probably put a number of those into some of these topics, broad as they are.

It’s difficult to see how this small concert that a reverend at a church was trying to promote would run into this issue, but this was the reason given. Of course, it was far too late by the time the two people involved were able to get information about what happened from Facebook—and discover there was a whole extra process that they have to go through. Even after this process was adequately described to the people who, once again, just wanted to spread the word about a local concert and discussion, there was no way to go through it before the event took place.

These kinds of policies aren’t working as intended. Last year, Vice proved that Facebook’s system could easily be gamed. And sophisticated actors—or simply large volume actors—intending harm will eventually slip through Facebook’s net. But it’s these smaller groups who have to depend on Facebook’s reach, who are not mainstream speakers, who end up most harmed by a policy that broadly imposes burdens on discussing issues that matter.

March 2019