The Facebook Ads Scandal: The Use & Abuse of Social Media Marketing

Posted on 5 November, 2018 by Admin in

Woman with paniced expression and her hands raised surrounded by various social media icons

Recently, Facebook have once again hit the headlines over their advertising platform. In a sting operation, Business Insider were able to post fake political ads that were listed as “paid for by” Cambridge Analytica – who are banned from Facebook. After a year of scandal related to Cambridge Analytica, and promises made by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, questions are now being raised about the future of Facebook ads.

The Latest Scandal

Facebook’s ad revenue dipped earlier in the year as a result of the first Cambridge Analytica scandal in April 2018, and changes were made to the platform after they were hit with a £500,000 fine for previous data violations. The alleged political ad transparency and stricter advertising guidelines were meant to prevent further scandals, but a couple of weeks ago Vice pointed out that manipulation was possible. Here in the UK, Business Insider decided to test Vice’s theory – prompting this latest scandal.

This is how it panned out:

  • Business Insider set up fake political ads which, in accordance with Facebook’s political ad transparency rules, were captioned as “paid for by Cambridge Analytica.” Considering that Cambridge Analytica has been blocked from Facebook and is in administration, those ads should never have been approved.
  • Earlier in October 2018, Facebook had rolled out in the UK the “paid for” disclosure on political ads that’s been active in the US since May. It’s designed to stop accusations that political parties are using ads to influence votes in an underhand manner. As part of Facebook’s crack-down on political ads, tighter verification rules have been introduced. Again, this should have prevented the fake ads being approved.
  • As part of these new verification steps, Business Insider had to verify a driving licence and UK address, and then they were allowed to publish political ads on a Facebook page. Testing Facebook’s political transparency tools to the limit, they published two ads that contained the required political disclosure: “paid for by Cambridge Analytica”. These ads contained “inflammatory captions” and “links to Leave.EU and Cambridge Analytica’s website.
  • The ads were run for two days to a small audience in London. This was designed to test how well Facebook’s moderation procedure worked. What the test revealed was that Facebook’s moderation procedure doesn’t work. The ads weren’t flagged as inappropriate or fake. Instead, they were approved and seen by Facebook users in east London.
  • After the ads caught the attention of the journalist from the Observer who interviewed the whistleblower in the original Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook pulled the ads. The social media platform didn’t explain how the ads had passed moderation in the first place.

The Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Back in March 2018, Facebook made an announcement about removing Cambridge Analytica’s account from the platform. This came after stories broke regarding Cambridge Analytica’s acquisition of data on up to 87 million Facebook users without consent. Unfortunately for Facebook, it wasn’t stolen data, but rather data that was gleaned through methods that fall within Facebook’s rules.

A smartphone screen in a persons hand with the screen showing both the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook logos on a blue background

Further investigations into Cambridge Analytica revealed that the data they acquired was (potentially) used in political advertising that may have influenced both the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit vote. President Trump’s campaign team used a lot of Facebook ads, and was assisted by Cambridge Analytica in the process. Facebook denied any wrongdoing on their part initially.

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who revealed the scandal, alleged that the data mined on Facebook users that was sold to Cambridge Academia was used to create “psychographic” profiles of people. These profiles were used in a marketing campaign that put pro-Trump ads and other material in front of susceptible people.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued an apology on 25th March 2018, in the form of full-page ads in US and British newspapers. “I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time. We’re now taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

This week’s events have shown that the steps that have been taken clearly are not enough to prevent manipulation of Facebook’s ad platform.

Abuses Of Social Media Marketing

The most worrying part about the whole sting operation that Business Insider successfully conducted is what it reveals about protective measures in social media advertising. Despite supposedly stricter rules and regulations regarding political advertising, Facebook isn’t able to protect its users from content that breaches their standards. If that’s true of political content, then can the rest of their advertising controls be trusted?

If, like me, you’re a parent of a teenager who spends the majority of their waking hours on social media platforms, you’d be right to be concerned. Can we be sure that there aren’t ads slipping through Facebook’s (or Instagram’s and SnapChat’s) moderation controls that our kids really shouldn’t be exposed to?

There has been a push for the creation of new laws that would make social media safer overall, and a particular focus on ensuring that unsuitable advertisements don’t get shown to children and teenagers. Facebook’s failure this week, however, calls into question whether social media platforms can be trusted to enforce new rules and standards. In May, a government Internet Safety Strategy green paper revealed that six in 10 people have been exposed to content online that is inappropriate or abusive.

It’s a growing problem, and with more and more time being spent on social media, there are questions being asked about the future of social media advertising. It’s all too easy to set up a fake account, create fake ads, and slip through the moderation process that is supposed to prevent those kinds of ads. That it took Facebook two days to pull the ads that Business Insider created – and only after they received media attention – is telling of the failure of protective measures within social media advertising.

Part of the problem is due to the way that much of Facebook’s advertising approval process is reliant on AI and automation. There are humans involved in the process, but it’s thought that it’s AI that decides which ads need further human assessment. Clearly the ads published this week were either approved by AI or the human approval team is woefully poor. Never mind that the ads were fake – the content was inflammatory and Cambridge Analytica have been banned from the platform.

A map of the world in green is visible with a background showing a binary code eminating from the centre. A grey banner surrounds the image and several eyes can be seen too.

Loopholes & Workarounds

Whilst the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded earlier in 2018, the actual abuses date back to 2016. Let’s face it, the manipulation of social media advertising has been around since, well, the beginning of social media advertising. There have always been rules and regulations regarding “acceptable” advertising content. Similarly, there have always been loopholes and workarounds.

What makes the situation more alarming is that social media platforms like Facebook seem to have an attitude towards advertisers that is either blasé or naïve. When Facebook launched the political disclaimer procedure in the US earlier this year, Tech Crunch reported a number of flaws in the set-up.

We’ve seen how easy it is for the political verification process to be exploited – but it gets worse. Regarding the disclaimer of “paid for by”, Facebook’s FAQs state: “It’s your responsibility as the advertiser to independently assess and ensure that your ads are in compliance with all applicable election and advertising laws and regulations.” Facebook only check for ad policy violations, apparently.

In an ideal world, all advertisers using social media marketing would be honest, transparent and law-abiding. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and there are always going to be advertisers working loopholes like this to their advantage. In fact, there are some who relish the challenge of flaunting the stricter rules, meaning that the tighter the rules get, the greater the thrill in beating the system.

The Future For Social Media Marketing

The loopholes and manipulation techniques have always been a part of social media marketing. Prior to the scandal breaking, however, the general public weren’t so aware of them. There are people who will continue to use social media regardless, not caring about the way they’re being manipulated by clever marketing campaigns. For others, however, alarm bells are ringing and they’re becoming more aware of the tricks that are being used to control their buying habits.

There’s particular concern in some spheres about the way that vulnerable people are being exploited by social media marketing. Social Science Computer Review published a study highlighting the way that socially excluded people, such as those with mental illness, spend more time on social media. They’re consequently exposed to more advertising, a fact which marketers are well aware of. The ethics of so-called “emotional marketing” are questionable, and now people are aware of it, there may be more backlash to come.

Final Thoughts

People lost confidence in Facebook’s advertising platform following the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March. By August, however, marketing revenue was increasing once more. What happens next for social media marketing is therefore quite unclear.

Facebook have already been fined for the data breech with Cambridge Analytica, but the latest scandal is more about protecting social media users from being unfairly targeted or exploited by advertisers. Time will tell whether social media marketing has a long future, or whether the repeated scandals will be the beginning of a death knell for social media advertising.

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