News groups ask Facebook to stop treating media ads like political ads

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Facebook is locking down ads from media unless they submit to the same disclosure rules as political ads.
Facebook is locking down ads from media  unless they submit to the same disclosure rules as political ads. Credit: Illustration by Ad Age

News organizations want Facebook to stop treating them like political and issues-based advertisers, claiming that the social network's new rules could negatively impact how the public views journalism.

On Monday, media advocacy groups addressed a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting that Facebook exempt most newspapers, news sites and magazines from the company's new political ad policies. The letter was signed by American Society of News Editors, Digital Content Next, The Association of Magazine Media, News Media Alliance and several other organization representing journalists and media.

"It is from our view of highest importance that the framework, which is currently being developed by Facebook, recognizes and values high-quality journalism separately and apart from political or issue-based advocacy found across the platform," the letter says.

The media organizations are referring to Facebook's recently implemented rules on the labeling and disclosure of political ads, a response to rampant fraudulent advertising during important elections like the 2016 presidential race in the U.S. and the U.K.'s 2015 vote on leaving the European Union.

In a postmortem of the 2016 campaign, Facebook corroborated U.S. intelligence findings that Russian groups paid to promote misinformation on the social network in an effort to sway public opinion on heated issues like race, religion and politics.

Facebook, Twitter and Google all promised to implement new transparency requirements for ads from political candidates and advocacy groups. In May, Facebook started requiring political advertisers to prove their identity and location, and it is setting up an archive that will keep a record of all the political ads that run for seven years.

The rules are meant to show the public exactly who paid for a political ad and what other political ads those groups and politicians buy. The public also gets access to details of the ad campaigns, like who was targeted and how many people saw them.

The news organizations have been caught up in the same transparency rules, however. If a newspaper promotes a story that discusses politics or public issues, it must disclose the same details as other political ads. Its ad also becomes searchable in the archive of political ads.

The news organization say being placed alongside political ads could damage their credibility by blurring the line between journalism and advocacy.

"They're classifying legitimate news and the work of legitimate newsrooms in an archive alongside political advertising," says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next. "It further distorts a much needed distinction between these two, putting them in the same archive."

Media companies don't have to submit to Facebook's political ad rules unless the stories they are promoting touch on political topics. Stories about hot dogs, say, don't fall under that category. Still, Kint says PBS was flagged for trying to promote a live video of Memorial Day celebrations in Washington, and that's just one of many such examples since the new rules took effect last month.

Showtime had to register as a political advertiser after trying to promote a new show about The New York Times called "The Fourth Estate."

Facebook says it won't exempt news organizations, but could treat their ads differently in the archive.

"We recognize that reporting on these topics is different than advocacy," said Campbell Brown, Facebook's head of global news partnerships, in an e-mailed statement. "We're working to treat advertised news content differently in the archive, which addresses our news partners' fundamental concern."

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