Facebook announced a small yet curious tweak to its advertising policies on Tuesday: Ads depicting “medical tubes connected to the human body”—which have long been prohibited under Facebook’s policies regarding shocking or sensationalist content—would no longer be banned, so long as the person to whom the tubes are connected does not appear to be in “visible pain or distress or where blood and bruising is visible.”
Paris Martineau covers platforms, online influence, and social media manipulation for WIRED.
This seemingly inconsequential adjustment could affect the types of anti-abortion advertisements that users see in their feeds, and it speaks to the extent to which Facebook top brass is willing to go in response to allegations of political bias from the right with little supporting evidence.
That’s because, unlike many Facebook policy changes, the inspiration for this one was clear: complaints from anti-abortion groups and conservatives, according to a report released by Facebook on Tuesday detailing the initial findings of the first-ever Facebook-sponsored review of the platform’s alleged anti-conservative bias.
Led by former Arizona Republican senator Jon Kyl and his team at the law firm Covington & Burling, the report was commissioned by Facebook in May 2018 in response to accusations that Facebook suppresses conservative views. It comes on the heels of Facebook’s civil rights audit, an external review to address allegations that the platform discriminates against minority groups, which was released last month.
This new report presents a laundry list of concerns raised by 133 key “political conservatives, people of orthodox religious views, libertarians, pro-lifers, traditionalists, Republicans, and free speech advocates.” The interviewees are not named, nor does the report include any specifics about the content of their interviews, how they were conducted, or how their concerns were eventually synthesized into the final report. “Facebook’s policies and their application have the potential to restrict free expression,” the report concludes.
Facebook will now allow ads depicting “medical tubes connected to the human body.”
Yet it prompted only one Facebook policy change, and no specific new programs or initiatives, according to the report. The advertising policy adjustment, the report claims, was in response to complaints by conservatives that Facebook’s policies regarding so-called shocking or sensational content caused it to reject anti-abortion ads “focused on survival stories of infants born before full-term.”
The report’s findings will ring a bell for anyone who has, say, tuned into one of Congress’ theatrical social media hearings over the past two years or taken a peek at a certain president’s Twitter threads in the wee hours of the morning. There are allegations of algorithmically aided anti-conservative bias, concerns about unfair moderation of passages from the Bible, confusion regarding Facebook’s Political Ad requirements (a sentiment that rightfully crosses party lines), and accusations of a perceived lack of ideological diversity among Facebook employees.
There is little evidence that Facebook censors users based on their political leanings. Conservative outlets like Fox News and Breitbart regularly rank among the top 10 and top 20 Facebook publishers, respectively, in monthly traffic charts published by social media analytics firms like NewsWhip, which tracks Facebook engagements. But that hasn’t stemmed the accusations of persecution from Congress, the White House, and conservative social media stars alike.
Perhaps the strongest finding in the report was the concern that “bans on ads for certain categories of products could result in disproportionate removal of conservative advertising content,” particularly related to abortion. “Removals of pro-life advertisements depicting premature babies were cited as evidence of the system’s flaws.”
That argument that has grown in popularity among conservatives in recent years after some anti-abortion organizations’ stories of rejected Facebook ads have spawned their own outrage-fueled online cycles. In October, two ads from the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion advocacy group, featuring images of recently born premature infants attached to medical devices were rejected by Facebook for featuring “sensational or graphic content” depicting “medical procedures or conditions.” The Susan B. Anthony List then attacked the policy and accused Facebook of “disenfranchising” two children shown in the ads. The story—along with reportedly at least five other similar instances—was picked up by conservative blogs where it was framed as one of the tech giant’s many acts of censorship.
“Susan B. Anthony List faced significant censorship issues with Facebook during the 2018 midterm elections,” said Mallory Quigley, the group’s vice president of communications, who added that that organization considers Facebook’s policy change to be a “step forward.”
“We appreciate Facebook’s willingness to engage, but more importantly to act, and hope that other tech companies—some of whom are openly hostile to the pro-life community—will follow suit,” she added.
When asked about the change to its ad policy and the audit report’s claims regarding its inspiration, a Facebook spokesperson told WIRED that the policy does not solely apply to ads from anti-abortion groups, but all ads depicting people with medical tubes. The spokesperson said that when Facebook began enforcing its longstanding ads policy prohibiting shocking and sensational content, enforcement was less sophisticated, and it did not have an objective way of confirming whether the person depicted in the image was suffering. At the time, Facebook chose the presence of tubes touching the human body as an objective standard indicating suffering, they said. The spokesperson noted that this approach wasn’t ideal, so Facebook decided to adjust its enforcement policies to prohibit only ads with visible pain or distress.