EDITORIAL: Facebook is messing with the news and we’re not going to play along News stories are now branded as political content

Facebook has instituted a new policy that makes it ethically untenable for us to promote our stories on the social media site.

EDITORIAL |

By Julie Reynolds Martinez

Voices readers who follow us on Facebook might have noticed lately that we don’t show up as often in your newsfeed.

The reason? Well, let’s just tease you with the fact that it has to do with Russian operatives playing dirty in the last presidential election. Really.

Recently, we wanted to “boost” a post about my interview with labor icon Dolores Huerta. What’s a boost, you ask? It’s basically a very cheap way (like $7 cheap) to promote a Facebook post so more people see it.

For some reason, the above post took longer than usual to be approved by Facebook. A lot longer. A full day after we clicked the little “boost” button to promote it, we were told it was approved. Hooray!

Then a few hours after that, it got un-approved.

This was the message from Facebook:

What the hell was going on?

It seems that in response to phony foreign political ads run during the 2016 presidential campaign, Facebook has now instituted a broad, sweeping, well-meaning and utterly bone-headed new policy for ads and “boosts” that is hurting legitimate news sites, large and small.

Here’s how it works. Facebook decided that any boost that appears to be a “political” ad will be blocked unless the booster is “authorized.” That mean registering your Social Security number, a photo of your ID, and your home address. A searchable archive of these alleged political actors is already publicly available. And each boosted post is marked as a paid political ad.

Great, that all makes sense if you’re a foreign oligarch trying to mess with U.S. elections. We want to know who’s paying for political ads, and we want to know if non-U.S. players are involved.

But news stories aren’t political ads, and Facebook and its algorithms still don’t know the difference.

Ken Martin, founder of a Texas nonprofit news site called The Austin Bulldog tells Voices his latest ad rejection was for his story, “Petition Seeks Austin Efficiency Audit.”

Facebook told Martin the Bulldog’s page “has not been authorized to run ads with political content,” and encouraged him to sign up for the authorization process. It added, “If you’ve read our policies and think that we made a mistake, you can request a second review by our team.”

“I appealed and got exactly the same response,” Martin said. “Because of this continuing problem I’ve given up and didn’t even try to boost the next story.”

This absurd situation has caused editors to pre-censor their posts, trying to avoid all kinds of political-sounding words like “election,” “city hall,” and “voters.”

But as our own experience shows, Facebook seems to label anything we write about a “national issue of public importance,” which in its view means we’re political. (As a freelance editor, this happened on a client’s page after I linked to a blog article. I appealed four times, explained why the post was nowhere near political, and got the same robotic response every time — that I needed to get authorized, and that was that.)

Facebook even has a list of “top-level” issues requiring political content authorization, and it includes words like education, budget, energy, poverty and “values.” (So don’t ever post about values.)

“It is dangerous to describe journalism as political content,” says Jon Slade of the Financial Times. “Journalism is journalism, and political lobbying is political lobbying, To conflate the two is an extremely dangerous precedent, particularly in this era when there are so many question marks about the veracity of news. We pulled out, and we are yet to be convinced that Facebook is taking this issue seriously.”

Voices agrees with Jon Slade and Ken Martin, and we are now among hundreds of news organizations refusing to go along with this absurd policy.

To make it all even more ridiculous, ProPublica reports that some actual, real political ads have gotten through Facebook’s nets without the “political ad” flag on them. All while our boosts are erroneously branded as advocacy.

“This could be really confusing to consumers because it’s labeling news content as political ad content,” Stefanie Murray, director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, told ProPublica.

We agree. Times are nasty enough for news outlets without our stories being falsely labeled. Might as well run a “Fake News” banner across the top, right?

(To clarify, we do publish opinion pieces that discuss politics and candidates — and we label them as opinions. But to advocate for a particular party or candidate goes against our journalistic ethics and the rules that govern nonprofit organizations. That’s why Voices will never endorse candidates or ballot measures.)

Facebook has told publishers it’s looking into the problem, but they haven’t shown signs they actually care. ProPublica says Facebook “has pledged to assign 3,000-4,000 ‘content moderators’ to monitor political ads, but hasn’t reached that staffing level yet.” Clearly not, as the robotic responses to our appeals show.

Why not just leave Facebook and say good riddance? Well, our site stats show that up to 80 percent of Voices readers find our stories on Facebook. That’s a healthy chunk of our audience, and as a small nonprofit whose founders still don’t take salaries, the $7 price was right for being able to reach many more people and to grow and fulfill our mission.

For us, Facebook has been the town square where we can all meet and find out what’s happening. But if we’re forced to brand ourselves as something we’re not, it’s time to find another meeting place.

We’ll keep posting, but until Facebook changes its policies, we’re keeping our hard-earned seven bucks out of their pockets.

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Julie Reynolds Martínez

About Julie Reynolds Martínez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.