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Facebook political ad ban blocks pro-vaccine messages

Welcome to Covid Court, where POLITICO’s Renu Rayasam issues rulings on how to get through the pandemic without losing your mind.

The concern isn’t limited to the U.S. Facebook mislabeled ads from European Union institutions and European governments as political messages, a separate POLITICO review found. The posts — often related to public awareness campaigns around the pandemic and the fallout from Brexit — were lumped with far-right partisan groups, mainstream political parties and other political campaigners.

Facebook acknowledged that it’s misidentified some ads and said it was restoring two — from the Centers for Disease Control and the Forsyth County, N.C. department of public health — to the ad rotation.

“While we have temporarily paused ads about social issues, elections or politics, we continue to allow ads about Covid-19 that promote vaccine efficacy, and have made our guidance to advertisers on how to run them publicly available,” the social media giant said in a statement.

Facebook imposed on-and-off restrictions on political advertising during last year’s election cycle in a bid to combat the spread of misinformation and promote transparency. Ads from public officials are banned outright, while some others from advocacy groups are allowed but require “paid for” disclaimers. But in casting its net, the site has snagged routine notices about the availability and effectiveness of vaccines and about the course of the pandemic.

Advertisers that run afoul of the ban sometimes resubmit their messages and win approval. But the task can prove time-consuming for local health departments and community groups already stretched thin by the health crisis.

Pressure on Facebook and other social media sites to curb misinformation has intensified with the widespread deployment of Covid vaccines. The House Energy and Commerce Committee asked major sites this month what they’re doing to tamp down on vaccine-related misinformation. Britain’s Home Secretary has called on social media firms to take down vaccine misinformation.

Facebook says it’s taking steps to promote authoritative information on vaccinations, for example by giving free credits for advertising to some public health groups.

But the site’s restrictions have also swept up institutions trying to promote such information. A group of CDC ads for flu shots was flagged for noting certain people may be susceptible to serious flu-related complications. Facebook later acknowledged its decision was incorrect.

Facebook’s restrictions block effective public health communications, said Kenzie Cameron, a Northwestern University researcher studying health communications, who reviewed several of the banned ads. Personalizing ads, or providing useful information to vaccine-hesitant people or individuals unable to navigate the system, are important strategies for effective public health communications.

Providing useful information — or personalizing ads about…

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