British government adverts announcing lockdown measures, explaining business loans and offering help to victims of domestic violence were wrongly removed by Facebook for breaking its rules on political advertising.
The social media giant nixed at least 128 coronavirus-related messages paid for by UK state agencies since the start of the pandemic, saying that they should have carried a disclaimer stating who paid for them.
Among the banished ads were vital public information bulletins about social distancing, self-isolation laws and the Government’s reopening road map, as well as NHS ads promoting rapid testing and rubbishing vaccine myths.
After inquiries from the Telegraph, however, Facebook said some of those decisions had been incorrect and removed its “political” label from at least 71 ads, while others remained listed.
It is the latest in a series of instances in which Facebook’s advertising controls have misfired, either failing to spot political adverts or wrongly designating other adverts as political.
A spokesman for Facebook said: “Some of these ads were incorrectly flagged as political and taken down for running without a disclaimer, so we have reversed those decisions.
“Our enforcement is never perfect since machines and human reviewers make mistakes, but we’re always working to improve.”
The Cabinet Office said the adverts had been removed in error and that it complies with Facebook’s rules. Two marketing agencies listed in Government disclaimers did not respond to requests for comment.
The re-classified ads have now been removed from Facebook’s public archive, where all political promotions are kept for seven years.
Facebook imposes special rules on political ads in the UK and some other countries, intended to prevent campaigners from covertly bombarding its users with targeted misinformation.
The company requires all such ads to have a “paid for” disclaimer with contact details for their buyers, ensuring that they stay in the archive with extra information about their cost, their audience and how many times they were seen.
Ads judged to be political without a disclaimer are removed from circulation and archived, but often only after being seen thousands or millions of times. Some are never caught, meaning they vanish from public view once they expire.
Last year the Telegraph revealed that Chinese state media outlets were using undeclared ads to cast the country as a global saviour amid the pandemic and criticise Donald Trump.
But Facebook’s system has also misfired in the other direction, blocking vaccine information adverts from 110 US charities and agencies including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
When the company froze submissions of new political ads in the run-up to last year’s US election, it accidentally wiped out numerous ads that had already been submitted and approved.
It is unclear why the British adverts were branded political. Facebook’s business help pages say ads about Covid-19 are usually allowed, giving “everyone can help prevent the spread of Covid-19” and “practise social distancing and limit travel” as examples.
Although some UK ads burnished the Government’s image, saying it had “protected workers and their livelihoods”, many simply conveyed Covid safety advice including “hands, face, space”. Often there were similar or almost identical ads that had remained online.
Existing disclaimers showed that some of the ads had come from the Cabinet Office’s Rapid Response Unit, a social media spin team seeking to “identify and counter harmful narratives online”. Others listed the Wales Office or Scotland Office.
Apart from coronavirus, Facebook also blocked ads preparing European citizens in the UK and Britons abroad for Brexit, as well as ads trying to recruit more women and ethnic minorities into the intelligence services.