Facebook's AI-fueled attempt to block bad ads is hurting legitimate small business owners — and its 'pay-to-play' customer support is leaving them stranded ahead of the holiday shopping season

Facebook headquarters

  • Facebook’s efforts to crack down on violations of its ad policies are mistakenly penalizing advertisers over selling benign products like dog posters and women’s jewelry, Business Insider has learned.
  • Facebook has relied more heavily on AI to police its platform during the pandemic, but hundreds of advertisers say they’ve had ads — and even entire accounts — banned despite not violating any policies.
  • Seven business owners, all of whom run ads for small businesses, told Business Insider that Facebook’s slow, opaque, and “pay-to-play” customer support system has left them locked out for weeks as they try to get erroneous bans resolved.
  • As a result, those small business owners — who rely heavily on Facebook to reach customers — are taking a massive hit on the eve of a holiday shopping season that’s even more crucial amid the pandemic.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In mid-March, even as it encouraged its full-time employees to work remotely, Facebook’s largely contract-based content moderators were still required to be in the office. Amid public pressure, Facebook eventually sent them home as well, saying it would rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to police its platform in the interim.

Just days later, Facebook mistakenly blocked users from posting legitimate news articles about the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook said the issue stemmed from a technical glitch in its automated spam filters, raising concerns over whether the company’s AI was up to the task of accurately and quickly sorting through the incoming tsunami of coronavirus hoaxes, scam medical products, hate speech, and election-related misinformation in the months ahead. On a call with reporters the next day, CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed Facebook’s pivot, hyping up the capabilities of its AI but also acknowledging that the company anticipated “some false positives” as a result of the new approach.

In the months since then, hundreds of advertisers claim they’ve gotten caught up in Facebook’s AI dragnet despite not violating any policies, according to messages and screenshots viewed by Business Insider.

Because Facebook doesn’t tell advertisers which specific policy they violated when it disables their accounts, it’s difficult to know what proportion of those bans were actually the result of an error by Facebook — or how many additional errors have gone unreported. But in interviews with Business Insider, seven business owners and ad agencies said they’ve seen an uptick in bans that Facebook ultimately admitted were made in error.

“We know it can be frustrating to experience any type of business disruption, especially at such a critical time of the year. While we offer free support for all businesses, we regularly work to improve our tools and systems, and to make the support we offer easier to use and access. We apologize for any inconvenience recent disruptions may have caused,” a Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider.

But those advertisers — all of whom run small or medium businesses, or run ads on behalf of them — told Business Insider that the slow, opaque, and inconsistent customer service Facebook provides to smaller advertisers has left them locked out of their accounts, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time, often costing them tens of thousands of dollars in revenue as they try to get erroneous bans reversed.

For those businesses, which often rely heavily on Facebook to reach customers, mistakes made by Facebook’s AI are leaving them cut off from a key revenue source at the worse possible time: Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the start of the holiday shopping season.

Facebook’s errant AI police

Since March, there have been almost weekly reports of Facebook’s “false negatives” — times it either failed to detect or refused to enforce what appeared to be clear policy violations, from calls for violence by President Donald Trump and white supremacists in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to conspiracies about COVID-19.

At the same time, Facebook kicked its AI into overdrive. The company reported that it removed 112 million organic posts in the first nine months of 2020, up more than 35% from the same period in 2019 (a spokesperson said there is no comparable report for ads). That’s led to additional negative attention in recent months for wrongful action against users and advertisers that didn’t violate its policies, the so-called “false positives” Zuckerberg warned about.

Days before the November 3 general election, a tech glitch “improperly” blocked political ads, affecting the campaigns of both Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Barely a week later, another tech glitch caused major issues for non-political advertisers as well, resulting in their ads not getting approved and accounts being disabled.

Some advertisers have had their accounts deactivated for weeks at a time, while others have had accounts disabled multiple times this year. And a majority said that Facebook typically provides little information about why it disabled their accounts while taking weeks to review their appeals, before ultimately admitting it banned them in error and restoring the accounts. Even in some cases where Facebook took action against specific ads, screenshots and messages viewed by Business Insider showed that the ads appeared to have nothing to do with the policy they were flagged for ostensibly violating.

One advertiser, who runs a dog products business that predominantly relies on Facebook to reach customers and requested anonymity out of fear for retaliation from Facebook, told Business Insider that his ad for a dog poster was slapped with a warning label after an independent fact checker determined it was in violation of Facebook’s policy against false news.

He told Business Insider he managed to contact the fact checker, who acknowledged the error, and the ad was restored temporarily. But then, Facebook’s algorithm subsequently blocked the ad again. Since advertisers can max out the number of appeals they file, he gave up on the ad to avoid broader repercussions for his account (Facebook said it doesn’t penalize accounts if it’s aware it made the error).

In one Facebook group, advertisers claimed Facebook’s AI has also mistaken necklaces for adult toys and arcades for gambling content. In October, Facebook blocked an ad for onions after incorrectly determining that the ad violated its policy against nudity.

But in Facebook groups and in interviews with Business Insider, advertisers’ complaints suggest that these erroneous bans are far more widespread than the one-off tech glitches Facebook has acknowledged after outcry from advertisers, politicians, or news media outlets.

On hold with customer support

A Facebook spokesperson told Business Insider that both the company’s AI and human reviewers make mistakes, and that advertisers can appeal decisions.

But those appeals appear to be moving at a significantly slower pace during the pandemic. Facebook reported that appeals concerning organic posts had all but vanished — down 95% in the first nine months of 2020 compared to the same time period last year — adding that “due to a temporary reduction in our review capacity as a result of COVID-19, we could not always offer our users the option to appeal.”

Facebook refused to disclose how many appeals it fielded concerning ads, but advertisers say they’re encountering a similar bottleneck.

Simon Wagner, who runs an online women’s jewelry business, has had his account mistakenly disabled by Facebook six times this year — in each case Facebook reversed its decision after he appealed, but in some cases that review process took more than a month. In the meantime, Wagner estimated that he has lost around $35,000 in revenue as a result of being unable run ads during those periods.

Wagner was among dozens of advertisers who reported waiting a month or more for Facebook to review an appeal, even though a customer support representative told him via chat that the process usually takes 24 to 48 hours, according to messages viewed by Business Insider.

All seven of the advertisers who spoke to Business Insider said this was because, as smaller spenders, they felt they (or their clients) received second-class customer support.

Larger advertisers who, according to AdAge, spend a minimum of $10,000 per month with Facebook, are eligible to receive a dedicated account representative to help them navigate issues, such as erroneous bans. Those who don’t — which Facebook has increasingly touted as it faces growing antitrust scrutiny — only have access to chat support with a randomly assigned customer service agent.

“If you’re not spending millions and don’t have a rep or if you’re not working with an agency that has access to a rep, you’re basically going to be treated unfairly, and they don’t give a s—,” said the owner of the dog products business.

Agencies also in the dark

Many businesses enlist ad agencies to help them create, target, and run ads on Facebook, and when those ads get removed by Facebook, they often ask the agency what went wrong. But even people who run those agencies say they have no more access to information than their clients.

“You don’t really have anything to get back to your client with, and I think it really kind of fundamentally starts to fracture some of the core tenets of that agency-client relationship,” Eric Allred, CEO of El Dorado Digital, told Business Insider.

“With COVID and shipping times, and it just being a kind of a weird year … it’s extra challenging to have your main point of distribution turned off without really a satisfactory explanation,” he said.

“They’re just getting stricter and stricter and are banning accounts more often and providing no explanation, no real appeal process, no proper customer support,” Jay Topp, the founder of the Australia-based agency Lion Social, told Business Insider.

“How are we supposed to build a business on a platform that doesn’t give a f— about us, that can just take everything in an instant without explanation, no accountability,” he said, adding that his clients spend around $1 million annually on Facebook.

No overnight changes

Justin Brooke, the founder of Ad Skills, a provider of digital marketing courses with more than 11,000 members, told Business Insider that Facebook’s apparent spike in account bans and decrease in customer support quality resembles similar growing pains he went through with Google nearly a decade ago, when it banned 214,000 accounts in 2015 in an attempt to purge “bad ads” from its rapidly growing platform.

“Investors don’t like to hear that 214,000 advertisers are no longer spending money, and so Google has gotten way better over the years — they’ve got phone numbers, we can call great reps, we can email … love working with Google today,” he said.

But Brooke said those changes didn’t happen overnight — it took until around 2018 for his experience with Google to become more positive. Similarly, he doesn’t expect Facebook to act until enough advertisers leave or reduce spending on the platform to put a dent in the company’s bottom line.

That could be awhile, given how Facebook has responded to past rifts with advertisers, and the fact that it has 10 million advertisers, meaning even a few hundred shifting some ad spend to Google or up-and-coming platforms like TikTok likely won’t undercut sales (Facebook reported $21.5 billion in revenue last quarter, up 22% year-over-year).

In July, Zuckerberg told employees that Facebook was “not gonna change” its hate speech policies even after 500 advertisers — including major brands like Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Unilever, Verizon, Ford, and Ben & Jerry’s — temporarily boycotted the platform. Many of those companies have since resumed advertising on Facebook, despite a lack of significant policy changes.

Facebook said it has long used AI (successfully, by its evaluation) and continually makes changes meant to improve its ad products and services, such as adding several thousand reviewers over the past year.

But even if Facebook never sufficiently addressed their concerns, smaller advertisers are typically even more dependent on the largest social-media platform on the internet, and more reluctant to shift their spending to other platforms than major brands.

“I can’t really blame [my clients] for sitting there and being like: ‘Okay, well we make, let’s say, $100,000 on Facebook, but we make $25,000 on Snapchat or something, let’s move all this spend over to Snapchat,” Ameet Khabra, founder of Canada-based agency Hop Skip Media, told Business Insider.

Others echoed those concerns.

“[Facebook] is my main way of advertising and this is just so risky. Like it’s a really, really risky platform to rely on, but it’s also the most powerful, right? So it’s kind of a love-hate relationship that we all have with Facebook,” the dog products business owner said.

Still, Brooke said he has been increasingly urging his customers to switch to Google as more reports of glitches with Facebook emerge.

“Our Google courses are just the highest demand we have right now,” Brooke said. “YouTube ads are just on fire right now.”

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