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Mask Up! How Public Health Messages Collide With Facebook's Political Ads Ban

COVID-19 ads that Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl planned to run on Facebook got caught in the social network's ban on political advertising.
Los Angeles County
COVID-19 ads that Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl planned to run on Facebook got caught in the social network's ban on political advertising.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl's district sweeps from the beaches of Santa Monica to the San Fernando Valley. Among the two million people she represents are Latino communities hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

"Many essential workers, many market and pharmacy and food service and restaurant and hotel workers and a lot of health care workers," she said. "So a lot of people just had to go to work."

To reach them amid a pandemic that has made face-to-face communication difficult Kuehl turned to Facebook. When the virus surged in her district this summer, she put out ads in English and Spanish, urging people to mask up.

And it worked, she says. Thanks to Facebook's targeting tools, some of the ads reached more than 100,000 people almost four times as many who follow Kuehl's Facebook page.

"You can tell exactly how many people click on a Facebook ad," she said. "We could tell that a lot more people were clicking on these ads than we got any kind of response to our own accounts."

Now, COVID-19 cases in her district are rising again. But Kuehl's efforts to connect with her most vulnerable constituents have hit a hurdle: Facebook itself. The social network's drive to limit political misinformation has ensnared seemingly harmless public health messages from elected officials like Kuehl.

Facebook halted political advertising after polls closed on Election Day. With votes being counted, President Donald Trump and his supporters spread false claims and conspiracy theories about the results. But nearly two months later, the Electoral College has affirmed Joe Biden's victory and yet Facebook's temporary pause is still in place.

The ad ban illustrates the difficult tradeoffs Facebook is making, with every decision carrying ramifications for billions of users. At the same time it is restricting ads, it is also promoting authoritative information about COVID-19 but as Kuehl's experience shows, those policies can sometimes seem to conflict.

"When Facebook makes these sweeping policy decisions, whatever their goals may be, the reach of those decisions into places where people aren't thinking about is enormous," said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, an advocacy group critical of Facebook.

What is "political"?

The ban came at the end of a year of withering criticism over Facebook's refusal to fact check politicians. It was accused of turning a blind eye, letting false claims proliferate.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Congress after the election that Facebook paused political ads "because of a risk of potential abuse or potential unrest or violence."

But critics say Facebook's definition of "political" is way too broad.

The social network doesn't only ban ads about elections and campaigns. It also includes ads about social issues like education, immigration and health. That means some businesses and nonprofits have not been able to run ads since the election either.

In Kuehl's case, the issue was not the content of the ads. But because she is an elected official, Facebook told her, it considers any ads from her to be political, and therefore subject to the ban.

So when she tried to run new ads in November, featuring people who survived COVID urging residents to take precautions, they were rejected.

"It was a little shocking to me because they were defining political ads as anything that my office did," Kuehl said.

Organizers say pandemic needs "all hands on deck" approach

Facebook says Kuehl's ads could be posted by the public health department, or anyone who is not an elected official.

Facebook spokesperson Devon Kearns told NPR in a statement: "While we have temporarily paused ads from elected officials and politicians as part of our work to protect the 2020 election, we're allowing ads about COVID-19 and have provided guidance to eligible advertisers on how to run them."

But Kuehl and local organizers say that does not address the urgency in Los Angeles County.

The county's worst hit areas include several neighborhoods in Kuehl's district, such as Pacoima and San Fernando, where infection rates are double the county average.

The situation requires "an all hands on deck approach," says John Kim of the Advancement Project California. His nonprofit is working with Kuehl and the county to help Latino and Black communities experiencing an outsized impact from COVID.

"We need community-based organizations and local leaders, local government departments and local elected officials all saying the same things all the time in all the channels," he told NPR.

Facebook won't say when it plans to lift the political ad ban. But recently, the company started allowing ads about the Senate run-off races in Georgia next month.

That exception rankles Kuehl. "I certainly think if they open it up for ads in Georgia, it would make sense to allow us to do these kinds of public service ads," she said.

In the meantime, she is working with Los Angeles County's public health department on their social media campaign. And she's posting to her own Facebook page urging people to mask up and stay safe.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.