23.2 C
New York
Friday, July 12, 2024

Meta Isn’t Enforcing Its Own Political Ads Policy, While the 2024 US Election Looms

In a video ad that ran on Facebook in late July, former blogger turned video host Jill Simonian alleges that “American schools have traded knowledge-based education for activism.” Plato and civics are no longer part of the curriculum, she says. The accompanying text reads, “What has happened to American schools? Radical ideas about gender, race, and anti-Americanism are infiltrating the classroom. Is there anywhere that’s still safe for our kids? Yes! It’s called PragerU Kids.” The ad, according to Facebook owner Meta’s own disclosure, reached more than 20,000 people.

The video is one of more than 100 ads that PragerU Kids, an arm of the right-wing nonprofit media organization, PragerU—which is named after conservative talk radio host and cofounder Dennis Prager—has pushed out on Facebook and Instagram over the past two months, according to a new report from Media Matters for America (MMFA), a media watchdog group.

The advertising blitz comes in the run-up to the start of the US school year, and at a moment where schools have become a focus of an intense culture war that is likely to roll on into the 2024 presidential election. And, it appears to be in violation of Meta’s advertising transparency rules, which require ads around "social issues, elections, or politics" to be labeled, and to include information about who has paid for them. That rule was put in place in 2018, after Meta faced scrutiny over foreign interference in the 2016 US presidential elections. But PragerU Kids’ example suggests those rules aren’t being consistently enforced, meaning political groups can push their messages to users without having to disclose their motives or funding.

“One of our biggest concerns more recently is that Meta has clearly started to backslide on some of their policies around the upcoming 2024 election,” says Kayla Gogarty, research director at MMFA. “They have a history of letting these right-wing organizations and figures flout their policies.”

PragerU Kids did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

It’s hard to see PragerU’s advertising as anything other than political. The organization has made videos arguing against the $15 minimum wage, questioning climate change, and in support of increased gun ownership. Videos on its website, which are also shared and promoted on its Facebook page, include topics like “How To Be a Rational Patriot” and “Preferred Pronouns or Prison,” which allege that using someone’s preferred pronouns is a form of “totalitarian thinking” and assert that America offers “personal freedom in a way no other country does.” A quick trip to PragerU Kids’ website finds animated videos about former US presidents, the biblical figure Joseph, and issues in other countries twisted to feature conservative talking points, such as how the “human cost of reducing emissions” has hurt the fictional character Ania in Poland, and how the “British Empire lifted India out of a long tradition of caste discrimination.” (British colonialism in South Asia led to the deaths of millions of people).

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

“America’s education system has been hijacked by one side,” Marissa Streit, PragerU’s CEO, told Time earlier this month.

Some of the ads found by MMFA on Facebook and Instagram encourage users to sign petitions to allow PragerU’s materials in schools. Others direct to some of the organization’s videos with accompanying text accusing teachers of promoting “radical ideas about gender, race, and anti-Americanism.”

Though conservative views on social issues have long held sway on the US right, pundits and politicians have begun to specifically focus on niche issues surrounding schools and education, such as transgender student athletes and critical race theory. Critical race theory—a field of academia that analyzes how issues of race permeate throughout society, including in laws and other systems of power and governance—became a major flashpoint during local elections starting in 2021. Conservatives labeled almost any education that touched on racism or the American history of slavery as part of the field. All of these issues have become major talking points—and even litmus tests—for conservative presidential candidates, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, to galvanize their supporters with the fear that their children will be “indoctrinated” by public education. By packaging conservative ideas this way, it turns social issues into questions of educational quality.

“[PragerU] represents a powerful force in the current culture wars,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, chair of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “They're a part of a world that believes … that the institutions beyond politics—the media, education and increasingly corporate culture—are dominated, in their view, by left-wing ideology.”

Rosenthal compares using Prager’s educational materials to schools in the early 20th century in states that outlawed the teaching of evolution. “Those children grew up not knowing the kind of basic science that children in other states and around the world grew up learning,” he says.

s that fall into the category of "social issues, elections, or politics" are supposed to be labeled and cataloged on Meta’s advertising library, meaning that anyone can look up what an ad said, how many people it reached, and how much an organization spent to promote it. Advertisers must also go through a special verification process in order to run these types of ads. The onus is upon advertisers to properly categorize their own ads, but if Meta finds that the advertiser has miscategorized their ads, the company can remove them.

Much of Meta’s advertising review system is automated, though in some cases ads are reviewed manually. “Reviewing ads from millions of advertisers globally against our advertising standards is essential, but not without challenges,” says Meta spokesperson Erin McPike. “Our integrity teams continue to monitor, identify and enforce on ads, pages, and accounts that violate our policies. Taking actions like these helps our integrity systems become more effective in detecting and removing violating content.”

McPike says that if the company finds an organization is violating its policies it can also restrict the ability to advertise in the future, or take down accounts altogether.

Most PopularBusinessThe End of Airbnb in New York

Amanda Hoover

BusinessThis Is the True Scale of New York’s Airbnb Apocalypse

Amanda Hoover

CultureStarfield Will Be the Meme Game for Decades to Come

Will Bedingfield

GearThe 15 Best Electric Bikes for Every Kind of Ride

Adrienne So

After WIRED reached out to Meta with examples of some of the ads found by MMFA, McPike confirmed that these had been reviewed and taken down.

If an organization doesn’t properly categorize its ads, it makes it harder for users and researchers to know who is behind a given campaign, or how much money they’re spending on it. Campaigns and Political Action Committees (PACs) are required to disclose how they spend money, including on advertising, but nonprofits like PragerU are not. And there are no federal laws mandating that platforms keep or catalog political advertisements (Meta does this of its own accord). This makes it much harder for researchers and watchdogs to grasp the true impact of how many people are exposed to political or partisan messaging.

PragerU was the 12th highest political ad spender on Meta between May 2018 and August 2023—outspending many political campaigns, according to MMFA’s analysis. Posting content on social media—including YouTube, Twitter, and Meta’s platforms—has been key to disseminating their message.

PragerU has more than 4 million followers on Facebook, and 2.2 million on Instagram. The PragerU Kids page, created in June, has only a few hundred followers, but in the past two months alone has run over 100 ads that MMFA says were improperly categorized. During the course of their research, Gogarty says that 12 of the ads MMFA found from PragerU Kids were removed, but all the others remained up, including one similar to those that Meta removed, which encouraged people to sign a petition to have PragerU Kids incorporated into school curricula.

This is not the first time that Meta’s ads systems have failed to catch organizations seeking to violate their rules, according to Gogarty, who said that right-wing groups like PragerU ran ads after the 2020 elections, "despite Meta banning any ads related to social issues and election politics, and how they did that was by just not classifying ads properly.”

And Gogarty worries this may be an early warning sign that Meta has begun to take its enforcement of its own policies less seriously. Earlier this year, the company cut staff who had overseen its attempts to counter mis- and disinformation in the 2022 midterm elections. Just this week, Meta declined to suspend the Facebook account of former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for threatening election-related violence, despite the recommendation of its independent Oversight Board. Other platforms appear to be weakening their policies too. A recent European Union report found that Meta’s and Twitter’s (now X) rollbacks of protective measures were responsible for increased Kremlin-backed disinformation around the war in Ukraine. X announced this week that it would begin allowing political advertisements on its platform again, after banning them in 2019.

“This is another example of Meta prioritizing revenue over pretty much anything else,” says Gogarty. “Not only are they letting [right-wing organizations] use these loopholes, but they’re also starting to capitulate to them and roll back some of [their] policies around election misinformation.”

Related Articles

Latest Articles