A Facebook advertisement celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month from a health insurance company. A professional women’s club showcasing black dolls so children can see “beautiful reflections of themselves.” Prostate cancer screenings for African-American men in Colorado and cervical cancer screenings for Hispanic women in Ohio. A pledge in Spanish for fast loan pre-approval from a mortgage company.
Dozens of advertisements removed from Facebook for being political ahead of the November midterm elections did not appear to express any political view, a USA TODAY analysis showed. The Facebook ads from businesses, universities, nonprofits and other organizations did seem to have something in common: They mentioned “African-American,” “Latino,” “Hispanic,” “Mexican,” “women,” “LGBT” or were written in Spanish.
Even offers of free delivery from Chipotle Mexican Grill were mislabeled as political until an inquiry from USA TODAY. Laurie Schalow, the restaurant chain’s chief communications officer, said Facebook “corrected the error” after being alerted.
Now complaints are piling up that Facebook is miscategorizing ads as political when they are not, highlighting the enormous challenge of sifting through millions of ads. Flagging ads that mention race and identity point to the tense climate that has thrust Facebook into the uneasy role of arbiter of political discourse.
Many of the ads USA TODAY found were inadvertently flagged by either humans or machines, Facebook said. But these mislabeled ads represent a small slice of the more than 1 million political ads on the platform, Rob Leathern, director of product management at Facebook, said in an interview.
“At the scale that we are doing this, there are going to be mistakes,” Leathern said. “We rely on a combination of machines and humans. Sometimes machines make mistakes. Sometimes humans make mistakes. Sometimes both.”
“We find that there are people who try to game the system if we provide detailed guidelines of how we review things,” he said. “We want transparency wherever possible but, when it comes to some of the enforcement mechanisms, we also have to anticipate a cat and mouse game with very sophisticated adversaries.”