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In January 2019, Facebook said it would place a temporary ban on political ads related to the 2019 elections in the country, basing its decision on the need to discourage foreign influence in the electoral process.
A Facebook statement issued that month to the effect read: “Earlier this month in Nigeria, we began temporarily disallowing electoral ads purchased from outside the country ahead of the election and will implement the same policy in Ukraine ahead of their election. Advertisers will need to be authorized to purchase political ads; we’ll give people more information about ads related to politics and issues; and we’ll create a publicly searchable library of these ads for up to seven years.”
However, according to an investigation by Al Jazeera, even false political ads can find their way into the social media space, as the automated ad approval system can be easily tricked to some level.
Al Jazeera placed some ads on Facebook, containing false claims, which were eventually approved. One of the claims was that Boko Haram would take part in the elections. The ads were estimated by Facebook’s system to possibly reach between seven and 17 million people.
Among the claims were that US President Donald Trump supported Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP); that the deadline for collection of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) was extended by one week; and that refugees would get a voting extension after February 16.
After slight changes were made to trick the Facebook automated ad system, all four false claims were approved. However, the one on refugees was eventually taken down.
The ads were, however, deactivated by Al Jazeera before they ran on the platform and the website where the news stories were posted was hidden from the public to ensure the stories were not visible to search engines.
Speaking on the development, Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, said: “This is worrying. One would like to see Facebook doing more to fact-check claims in political advertising during a political campaign period. The evidence seems to suggest that their system does not work as effectively as it should.”
To buy ads on Facebook, users have to go through Facebook’s Ad Manager, an automated system that not only allows users to focus their advertisements on a very specific audience, but also approves ads before publication. Any of the four ads by Al Jazeera should have been disallowed, since they were placed from Qatar and Facebook had announced that it would not allow users to buy political ads from outside Nigeria.
Speaking on its commitment to discouraging fake ads, a Facebook official said the comoany “is committed to fighting the spread of false news on Facebook, and protecting election integrity”, but that “there is no silver bullet to this issue”.
Facebook said preventing such adds from its space “requires a multi-pronged approach”, noting that several solutions had been implemented, including teaming up with local third-party fact-checkers, rolling out educational tips on national and regional media across Nigeria, and introducing new options in English and Hausa so people can report posts that contain incorrect election information, encourage violence or otherwise violate its Community Standards.
“Although false news does not in and of itself violate our Community Standards, it often violates our policies in other categories, which can lead to removal, as occurred here,” Facebook told Al Jazeera.
“The majority of these ads were rejected for policy violations and never appeared on Facebook. The small number that were approved were paused before they went live and likely would have received limited to zero distribution on Facebook as a result of additional violations of our advertising policies.
“While we have made good progress, we recognise there is always more we can do because the threats we face keep evolving – but we’ll continue to work on improving our systems and technology to prevent abuse.”