Facebook’s human moderators concentrated on election and Covid-19 misinformation this year, allowing the organization to rely heavily on artificial intelligence systems to track other areas of the platform
Ruth Harrigan, a New York-based businesswoman, generally sells her honey and beeswax goods in souvenir shops. But with Covid-19 preventing tourism, she was almost entirely relying on Facebook advertising to drive online sales. On Nov. 11, this new financial lifeline was unexpectedly cut when the social media firm blocked its HoneyGramz ad account for breaching its rules. She couldn’t understand what the problem may have been with her small honey-filled presents.
Friends advised Harrigan to wait a few days, and the issue could be fixed. She waited until she had lost an extra $5,000 in revenue.
“I’ve been thinking a little anxious, ‘Oh my God, Black Friday is around the corner, most of my sales for the year are in November and December, and that’s it,'” she explained. “I said If I’m shut down any longer than this, it’s going to cripple me.'”
Harrigan is one of the millions of small business advertisers that have come to rely on Facebook Inc. since the coronavirus has shut down many of the traditional retail outlets. The social media giant created new sales prospects for these developers, but also introduced them to the company’s misleading content-moderation tools, restricted customer service options, and lack of clarity about how to solve issues.
Facebook’s human moderators concentrated on election and Covid-19 disinformation this year, allowing the organisation rely heavily on artificial intelligence systems to track other aspects of the site. That left a lot of small businesses caught up in Facebook’s automatic filtering, unable to advertise via the service, and disappointed because they don’t know why.
The same weekend Harrigan’s account went down, Ivonne Sanchez, who operates a permanent makeup clinic in Ottawa, discovered that her advertisements were blocked too, for what Facebook claimed was a “policy breach.” Her company, which had to be shut down for the pandemic between March and June, was relying on Facebook to make a financial recovery. The account was reinstated the next day without warning, but “in the midst of the c. “This experience makes us very nervous about investing dollars in a system that seems to be operated by a bot.”
“It all blew up. They recently turned up the AI—someone changed something—and all of a sudden they were shut down.”—Justin Brooke, founder of Adskills.com.
And after an ad account is recovered, companies are losing vital traction. Facebook’s advertisement algorithm takes a few weeks to find out whether people may be involved in an ad, and to optimise the targeting. Jessica Grossman, Chief Executive Officer of Digital Marketing In Social, says that when her clients get hit, the hardest thing is convincing them their campaigns have to start and their money has to start.
“Facebook almost doesn’t realise the impact of its own algorithm and what that means,” Grossman said. There appeared to be no sense to the prohibitions levied on Social Consumers, she said. Pizza vending machine group, recycled water bottle company, coffee delivery service, business coach and hair weaving company were all suspended.
“We know it can be frustrating to experience any kind of business disruption, especially at such a critical time of year,” Facebook said in a statement. “While we offer free support to all businesses, we work regularly to improve our tools and systems and to make the support we offer easier to use and access. We apologise for any inconvenience that may have caused recent disruptions.”
Facebook also emphasises its commitment to small businesses as it defends its ever-increasing grip on their economic future. On a recent earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was a “major focus” that is more important now than ever” as Covid-19 changes online market. During the July boycott by big companies, Facebook’s sales continued to rise, fueled by small businesses racing online to try to survive. This year the organisation also introduced more tools for small companies to sell directly to consumers via its website, expecting that these virtual stores will also become advertisers.
But though company owners accept that Facebook is a lifeline during the pandemic, they argue that it’s still an unstable collaborator. For example, Facebook’s ban on campaign advertising during the U.S. election impacted businesses that have no link to politics, such as a company selling bracelets to refugees. A seed business was also blocked for posting an image of Walla Walla onions—which, according to Facebook’s AI, is “overly sexual.”
The company’s strategies against cryptocurrency have often stuck advertisements from a solar roofing company, Human SOLR, and some of the acronyms used by the company are close to cryptocurrency tokens. After the problem has been settled, Human SOLR’s advertisements were again banned for the use of phrases such as “see if your roof is qualified.” Facebook’s algorithms indicated that the firm was advertising financial goods that are more controlled. Brett Lee, who runs the business, gave up Facebook ads after enough flags on the account. “My business is at a complete standstill,” said Lee, who is based in St. George, Utah. “The lives of my employees are at a standstill.”
GFP Shipped, a Chicago-based production company that promoted a way for customers to skip a grocery store during Covid-19, shut down its Facebook ads for two months without any specific reason, according to owner George Fourkas. He said he was only able to address the issue after he reached out to old college friends who work on Facebook.
Yaniv Gershom, co-founder of 4AM Media’s digital marketing agency, said he had to cut 12 positions partially because of Facebook’s bans on ad pages, which lasted almost six months. “They’re giving you zero feedback,” he said The only people who are OK are massive donors who get a Facebook Rep that can escalate issues and find out what’s wrong.”
In certain situations, the market effect is impossible to calculate. Matt Snow, co-founder of the clothes business called Boredwalk, said Facebook’s automated systems mistakenly classified 40 percent of its company’s merchandise catalogue as dangerous late last month. That left Snow targeting potential buyers with the wrong items. Eventually, he found and immediately settled the problem with the Facebook sales manager, but Snow doesn’t know how long the goods had been banned, or even which other things had been marketed in their place. “Facebook is a very black box of all their internal machining,” he added.
Facebook has been automating content filtering for years, a transition that shows in a quarterly report how much content the organisation removes. In more complex categories such as “hate speech,” Facebook immediately deleted almost 95 per cent of violent content in the third quarter, up from just 53 per cent two years earlier.
But the rise came with further corrections. Facebook deleted 22 million hate speech messages in the third quarter, more than 3 times as many as a year ago. The number of posts it then reinstated increased by 40 percent.
The appeal of these frequently automatic decisions has now been even more difficult. “Due to a temporary reduction in our review capacity as a result of Covid-19, we have not always been able to offer our users the opportunity to appeal,” Facebook wrote in its third quarter report.
Advertisers have been particularly affected by these automatic decisions in recent months. “It all blew up. They recently turned up the AI—somebody changed something—and all of a sudden they were shut down,” said Justin Brooke, founder of Adskills.com, who teaches entrepreneurs how to sell on Facebook. “What are these small companies going to do? They have families to feed.”
One of Brooke’s own Facebook advertising has a brief written disclaimer that it wasn’t available to people seeking to market adult content. It was flagged and taken down. Is Facebook an artificial explanation? The article did not meet the company’s “nudity/sexual activity” community standards.
Facebook’s over-reaction is a side effect of the company taking greater responsibility for content on its website, according to Guy Rosen, Facebook’s Vice President for Honesty. “As we take more action, we remove more content, there are more opportunities for those who are wrong,” he said during a recent press conference.
That’s what HoneyGramz’s Harrigan says happened to her account. Finally, she was desperate enough for Google’s names of Facebook workers to intervene. She found Rob Leathern, the company’s director of ad goods, and sent him a note on Twitter. Miraculously, he replied. A couple hours later, Facebook sent an email to recover her account.
“They just said they turned it off in error,” Harrigan said. “They didn’t give me any feedback. They just reset the whole thing as if it had never happened.”
Yet Harrigan is not going to forget. She typed the email and pinned it to the whiteboard of her office. “It was really, really scary,” she added.