How Small, Black-Owned Businesses Get Tangled in Instagram’s Ad Approval Algorithm

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The guidelines that are hampering Purnell and Blackwood are accessible—or at least no more hidden than any others in Facebook’s byzantine handbook. Simply navigate to Facebook’s advertising rules, click through to “Restricted Content,” scroll down to item 10a, and click through again:

Social issues are sensitive topics that are heavily debated, may influence the outcome of an election or result in/relate to existing or proposed legislation. We require increased authenticity and transparency to run social issue ads that seek to influence public opinion through discussion, debate or advocacy for or against important topics, like Health and Civil and Social Rights. These ads can come from a range of advertisers. They include activists, brands, non-profit groups and political organizations, who are all required to get authorized and use ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers on ads that take a stand on issues within our policy.

On a separate page down the rabbit hole, Facebook offers examples particular to various countries of what ad language “requires authorization” and what doesn’t. In the U.S. a sentence like this requires authorization: “‘It’s time for us all to stand up and demand equal rights for women.’” One that would not trip the algorithm, or would pass muster with a human moderator is fine to post: “‘The museum is opening a new exhibit on the civil rights movement.’”

The small business owners who rely on the platform, though, often learn about the regulation when they violate it. And while most of the media focus on Facebook’s efforts to tamp down hate speech and label misinformation, the business owners are missing out on sales when their efforts to combat racism are deemed “social issues” that could “sway an election.” 

“The bag doesn’t say anything [political]; it doesn’t have the word Democrat or Republican in it. It just says ‘end systemic racism.’” Blackwood said. “The fact that [Instagram] thinks that term can ‘sway an election’ already says so much. At the end of the day, I sell bags. I’m so far removed from anything going on in [the political] sense.”

If they want to, sellers can apply to be approved to use language about politics or social issues. As a Facebook spokesperson told V.F., “In response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, we instituted changes to ensure greater transparency for ads about civil and social rights. People are able to run ads on these topics, but first are required to get authorized and then provide a ‘paid for by’ disclaimer so people can see who is behind the ad. This is part of making ads transparent and elections safe.”

The process involves proving you’re a human person who can verify you live at the address you say you do (the Post Office is involved). But these are small-scale makers of crochet bikinis and holistic beauty treatments. They are accessory designers and T-shirt makers. Applying to run an ad that speaks to “social issues” when they represent a small shop in Washington state and not a political entity or group makes little sense for many of them.

“It’s so hypocritical because Instagram, when the protests were going on and everything, its was a Black emblem and its bio said nothing but ‘Share black stories,’” Blackwood said. “So, I’m like, you can do that, but when it actually comes down to like Black businesses, Black people, Black prosperity…?”

In the end, he found a workaround, promoting the “End Systemic Racism” tote by censoring the words “systemic racism” with a black bar over the image. It still sells for $50 on his site.

The alternative, per Casey Newton, tech reporter at The Verge, could be worse. A longtime chronicler of Facebook, he’s used to this type of complaint. The famously mild one that he hears is when users’ “please recycle” comments in ads trip the restricted-speech wires as “political.” Facebook pulled back on some environmental topics in 2019, recognizing that what constitutes a “social issue” might be “fluid.”

“The trade off is, well, do we want there to be restrictions on who can buy ads on Facebook or not?” The regulations around speech are a bulwark against some of the discord nefarious parties want to and have unleashed on the platform, like white nationalists or Russian bots. That’s part of what, we all remember, sucked about 2016. By installing the approval process to use political speech in ads, Newton said, “The hope is that that makes it harder for Russians or other bad actors to buy a bunch of ads to sow dissent around BLM or other movements.”

The smaller owners I spoke with, ones with fewer than 5,000 followers, who do between 80 and 100 percent of their business through Instagram alone, said they met a void of unresponsiveness when they tried to appeal their tanked ads. But what are they supposed to do? Leave Instagram? There needs to be stopgaps for abusing the platform’s systems, but sometimes torpedoing Russian bots means hampering smaller accounts who rely on the platform the most for income. That’s just life under the algorithm.

Blackwood got his in-app shopping abilities back after many of his followers, who have high-follower counts themselves and often work hand in hand with Instagram’s shopping and fashion arms, made a stink on the platform and in internal emails. His in-app shopping has since been removed and reinstated and removed again, he said, in a frustrating game of tag that appears to be, so far, endless. On one side is Blackwood, a human trying to build his brand; on the other, an algorithm with, for the most part, final say.

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