Denver, Colo., Jan 3, 2018 / 15:22 pm
A Facebook-based Catholic fundraising campaign suffered "critical" delays in the key donation period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Facebook's new scrutiny of ads aimed at religious audiences is to blame, one social media expert has charged.
Matthew Meeks served as an advisor to a fundraising initiative of the Virginia-based Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations. The fund, founded in 2004, aims to help aspiring Catholic priests, nuns and monks who face heavy student loan burdens.
Meeks told CNA that new Facebook policies for ad approval created delays that "caused us to miss the bulk of Giving Tuesday, a day where the Fund for Vocations had planned to kick off a campaign through the Christmas season."
The Mater Ecclesiae Fund "experienced significant issues with Facebook from the beginning of the campaign," Meeks told CNA. "For one, the ad platform took more than 24 hours for the ads to be approved. The fund received a message that the content of the ads potentially violated Facebook's discrimination rules regarding the exclusion of race, religion, sexuality, etc. for housing ads. This was neither a housing ad nor were they excluding a race or religion from receipt of the ads."
Meeks said the ad campaign intentionally targeted Catholic Facebook users, since they were most likely to support such the fund. The campaign ads promoted a video telling the vocation story of a religious sister who has received aid from the Fund for Vocations.
"Once the ads went live, the Fund for Vocations received word from numerous people that they were unable to share the video in the advertisement, citing that the 'feature was unavailable,'" Meeks said. "Finally, the ads received 2,555 direct clicks, 105,408 in impressions, 50,000 in reach and not a single penny in donations."
CNA sought comment from Facebook, which initially requested additional information about the campaign, but subsequently stopped responding to inquiries.
Facebook has faced increased public scrutiny amid claims that ad campaigns backed by the Russian government used Facebook and other social media to increase religious and political tensions in the U.S. ahead of the 2016 elections.
In late October, Facebook announced that it was testing changes to its ad targeting system that could cause delays in some advertising campaigns.
"Ad sets that use targeting terms related to social, religious or political issues may require additional review before your ads start running," Rob Goldman, Facebook vice-president of ads, said Oct. 27. "If your ad set contains targeting terms related to these topics, your campaign may take longer to start running, or you can adjust your detailed targeting elections."
On Oct. 2, Facebook vice-president of global public policy Joel Kaplan said the company was taking "aggressive steps" to strengthen both automated and manual review of "improper ads."
In a Nov. 27 statement, Goldman said "we don't want advertising to be used for hate or discrimination, and our policies reflect that." He said Facebook reviews ads based on content, targeting, landing page, and the identity of the advertiser.
"We may not always get it right, but our goal is to prevent and remove content that violates our policies without censoring public discourse," Goldman added.
Meeks told CNA that Facebook "needs to equally treat religious organizations as it would any other advertiser on the platform."
"Religious ads on the platform are part of a larger issue and should not be unfairly scrutinized and delayed," he said. Doing so gives an "unfair advantage" to non-religious campaigns, and hinders religious use of an important tool for advertising and communication.
"Given that Facebook and Google now account for 65 percent or more of all digital ad spending, being blocked from the platform or experiencing delays on the platform due to increased scrutiny of religious organizations on the platform is a critical loss," Meeks said.
Another recent change to the Facebook algorithm limits the organic reach of Facebook pages, forcing brands to buy ads for greater exposure. Such action, he charged, is "effectively squeezing religion off the platform."
The vocations fund is reassessing its strategy, "as they no longer trust the Facebook platform to deliver going forward," Meeks added.
In September 2017, the Daily Beast reported that an imposter account traced back to the Russian government impersonated a Muslim group and promoted political rallies aimed at Muslim audiences. The account appeared to be impersonating the United Muslims of America, a 30-year-old California-based group in the midst of a reorganization.
The fake Facebook page posted apolitical content, promoted positive portrayals of Muslims and debunked some anti-Muslim claims. However, at strategic moments, it also promoted disinformation.
Russian-backed groups simultaneously used other accounts to foment anti-Muslim sentiment.
Facebook has shared ads appearing to come from the Russia-based Internet Research Agency with Congress. Kaplan said the company had found more than 3,000 ads apparently from the agency that ran between 2015 and 2017, many of which appeared "to amplify racial and social divisions."
In July 2017, more than 25 Catholic Facebook pages in English, Portuguese and Spanish were blocked without explanation, then restored the pages within hours. A Facebook spokesperson apologized and blamed "a malfunction of the spam detection mechanism in our platform."
In 2016 the social media network faced allegations that its news curators were manipulating its trending news section to favor certain stories and disfavor others, especially politically conservative stories.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg denied the allegations, but met with several conservative leaders and the company later moved to an automated system.