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Mask Up! How Public Health Messages Collide With Facebook's Political Ads Ban


Nearly two months after Election Day, Facebook is still not accepting political ads. They were suspended after polls closed to stop the spread of misinformation. The ban is frustrating one elected official who says it makes it harder to get out critical information about the pandemic. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more. And we'll note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl represents 2 million people, from the beaches of Santa Monica to the San Fernando Valley. And the coronavirus has hit some Latino communities in her district really hard.

SHEILA KUEHL: Many essential workers, many market and pharmacy and food service and a lot of health care workers.

BOND: So this summer, Kuehl turned to Facebook. She put out ads in English and Spanish, targeting people who live in neighborhoods where COVID is rampant. The ads encouraged people to wear masks and stay distant. Some reached 80- or a hundred thousand people, more than three times as many who follow Kuehl's Facebook page.

KUEHL: We could tell that a lot more people were clicking on these ads than we got any kind of response to our own accounts.

BOND: Now cases are rising again, and the worst-hit parts of LA County include several neighborhoods in Kuehl's district, so she lined up new ads. But this time, Facebook rejected them. The company told her because she's an elected official, her ads are considered political. And Facebook is not accepting political advertising right now.

KUEHL: It was a little shocking to me because they were defining political ads as anything that my office did.

BOND: Facebook got a lot of criticism this year for not fact-checking politicians. So after the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: We have temporarily paused all political ads because of a risk of potential abuse.

BOND: But critics say Facebook's definition of what is political is way too broad. It's not just elections and campaigns. It includes social issues like education, immigration and the environment. That means some businesses and nonprofits also haven't been able to run ads since the election.

Jesse Lehrich is co-founder of Accountable Tech, an advocacy group critical of Facebook.

JESSE LEHRICH: When Facebook makes these sweeping policy decisions, whatever their goals may be, the reach of those decisions into places where people aren't thinking about is enormous.

BOND: These trade-offs are difficult. Every decision Facebook makes has ramifications for billions of users. Even as it's restricting ads, it says it's promoting authoritative information about COVID. Facebook says Kuehl's ads can be posted by the public health department or anyone who's not an elected official.

But the situation is so urgent it should be all hands on deck, says John Kim of the Advancement Project California. His nonprofit is working with Kuehl to help Latino and Black communities. And he says it's not enough for public health messages to come just from the public health department.

JOHN KIM: We need community-based organization and local leaders, local government departments and local elected officials all saying the same things all the time in all the channels.

BOND: Facebook won't say when it plans to lift the ban. But recently, it started allowing ads about the Senate runoff races in Georgia next month. That rankles Supervisor Kuehl.

KUEHL: I certainly think if they open it up for ads in Georgia, it would make sense to allow us to do these kinds of public service ads.

BOND: In the meantime, she's working with LA County's public health department on their social media campaign and posting to her own Facebook page, urging people to mask up and stay safe.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.