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Businesses With a Give-Back Mission Caught in Facebook Ad Ban

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What do a small business that sell socks packaged by homeless youth and a start-up that makes bracelets from life vests once worn by refugees have to do with the spread of misinformation during the presidential election season?

Nothing, thought the entrepreneurs who started them, until Facebook notified them that their ads had been pulled because they fell into a category of “social issues, elections or politics” that were being blocked by the site.

The social media giant announced last week that it was extending a ban imposed on certain ads during the election to prevent the dissemination of false information. The prohibition has ensnared a number of socially driven businesses with no direct connection to partisan politics.

Companies connected to issues like hunger, the environment and immigration, many of which rely heavily on social media to draw customers to their websites, have seen their access abruptly cut off.

“We’re just selling socks and trying to do a good thing,” said Sam Harper, 27, co-founder of Hippy Feet, a company in Minneapolis that employs homeless youth. “We are not trying to advance any particular agenda around homelessness and unemployment.”

ImageSam Harper, 27, is the co-founder of Hippy Feet, a sock retailer in Minneapolis that provides employment to homeless youth.
Credit…Nina Robinson for The New York Times

“Facebook is thinking of the political campaigns, and we are collateral damage in the process,” Mr. Harper said.

The entrepreneurs say they don’t begrudge Facebook for barring falsehoods and misleading content. But they contend that it is unfair that their do-good businesses are being lumped in with politically motivated advertisers. With the crucial holiday season fast approaching, some fear that the ban, extended on Nov. 11 for another month, could spell their demise.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, deceptive and distorted information spread by Russian automated accounts and others on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube was designed to influence voters. Some of the accounts generated posts about social issues, such as civil and women’s rights, that proved divisive.

This election cycle, amid mounting pressure to improve the monitoring of ads, Facebook and several other platforms blocked new political ads ahead of Election Day and extended the suspension during the contested vote counting afterward.

“The temporary pause for ads about politics and social issues in the U.S. continues to be in place as part of our ongoing efforts to protect the election,” the company said last week in announcing the extension. “Advertisers can expect this to last another month, though there may be an opportunity to resume these ads sooner.”

Credit…via Facebook

Sarah Schiff, a Facebook product manager, said that the company made “difficult decisions” to temporarily suspend ads not only about politics and elections, but also on many social issues, “to protect the integrity of the election.”

“We know this may be disappointing, but we encourage businesses to run ads about other topics and reach people during this time through their organic posts and tools such as fund-raisers on Facebook and Instagram,” Ms. Schiff said in a statement.

The company said that business owners who believed their ads were flagged incorrectly could request reconsideration, either through an automated process or through a personal review.

“Enforcement isn’t perfect but we improve with time,” the statement said.

The ad policy so far has cast a wide net.

“Because you have to implement this at a tremendous scale, you can’t be making exceptions regularly,” said Jessica Alter, co-founder of Tech for Campaigns, a nonprofit that advises Democratic campaigns on their social-media advertising strategy. “Organizations and businesses trying to do good are unfairly disadvantaged.”

“If you have an all-out ban, this is the unintended consequence,” added Ms. Alter, who said she did not blame Facebook. “Is advertising mindfulness political? Yoga?”

Advertising on Facebook is a lifeline for Epimonia, a Minneapolis-based company that makes and sells bracelets and other items made from the discarded life jackets worn by refugees fleeing on flimsy boats to Europe.

The company spends several thousand dollars a year to advertise on Facebook, which targets users who have a favorable view of refugees based on the interests listed on their profiles. When an Epimonia ad pops up, those who click on it are directed to the company’s website.

“I have been advertising on Facebook for years. It’s very frustrating for me now to be categorized with groups using false advertising for political reasons,” said Mohamed Malim, 24, a Somali-American who started the business three years ago with $2,000 left from his college scholarship.

Epimonia’s ads were suspended in late October, when Facebook first announced a weeklong freeze on certain ads. They have not gone back up since, said Mr. Malim, who has appealed the decision several times, to no avail.

“Not being able to run ads before the holidays could put us out of business,” said Mr. Malim, who employs a handful of refugees to make bracelets, beanies and T-shirts.

Credit…Nina Robinson for The New York Times

Three of the banned Epimonia ads state that the purchase of a bracelet would help refugees build new lives in the United States. The ads also say that some of the proceeds will go to charitable causes.

“The ads have been approved but have been paused due to a Restriction Period,” Facebook told the company. “All issue, electoral and political ads in the U.S. were temporarily stopped.”

Facebook did not specify what was wrong with the ads, but Mr. Malim said he assumed that “since we talk about refugees in our brand communications, Facebook considers us a political advertiser.”

Given the uncertainty, he has decided to postpone the launch of a new apparel line planned for next week. “It will be hard for us to sell and to donate to nonprofits if we continue to have this problem,” Mr. Malim said.

Even before the election, Facebook required companies that have a social agenda to include a disclaimer in their ads. But businesses and ad agencies, which place ads for some of them, reported that Facebook has become more aggressive about disabling ads altogether in recent weeks.

One of the companies targeted was Bridgewater Candle Company, which donates money from every scented candle that it sells to orphans in Haiti, India and other countries through a Christian nonprofit. Its slogan is, “Light a candle, feed a child.”

Credit…Nina Robinson for The New York Times

On Nov. 4, the business was notified by Facebook that an ad promoting its mission had been suspended. “The simplest line, ‘With every jar candle, we provide three meals,’ triggered its removal,” said Kelly Barter, marketing manager for the Spartanburg, S.C., company. “Facebook considers our giveback mission a social issue.”

It was the first time since the candle company started advertising on the platform three years ago that an approved ad had been pulled. It took a week of back and forth communication with Facebook to resurrect it.

“It’s problematic for an e-commerce business trying to drive sales and raise awareness to be shut down,” Ms. Barter said. “Thankfully, we were able to work through the roadblock.”

Blueland, which sells refillable and reusable cleaning products, does not ask its customers to donate to environmental causes. But the e-commerce site markets its soap, laundry and dishwater tablets as “a gift for you and the planet” because the products help eliminate polluting plastic containers.

It was on that basis that Facebook recently banned a Blueland ad that talked about how its reusable hand soap prevents single-use plastic bottles from washing up in oceans and going to landfills. Facebook then reviewed the ad at Blueland’s request, and allowed it to run without any modifications.

“It was something we were able to get corrected, but it wasn’t the best timing when we were about to go into the holiday season,” said Gina Pak, the company’s chief marketing officer.

Ms. Pak said she agreed with Facebook’s efforts to address “big, important issues” during the election but suggested that it was “disruptive” to have ads taken down.

Hippy Feet, which sells zany, colorful socks with music-oriented names like Sunset Lovers, Fleetwoods and Joplins, is committed to helping homeless teenagers and young adults by employing them on a part-time basis to fill and pack orders, screen print and embroider.

On the eve of the election, Facebook notified Hippy Feet several times that its ads violated the ad policy, according to a communication provided by the company.

“Their algorithms see words like homelessness and decide we are political,” said Mr. Harper, who started Hippy Feet four years ago with a friend.

The company is more dependent than ever on Facebook ads to help boost its online sales because the coronavirus pandemic has prevented it from selling as it normally would at holiday markets and bazaars. The business traditionally generates about 40 percent of its sales during the holidays, when it also employs the most homeless youth at its facility.

“We are a little on edge and uncertain about where things will go,” Mr. Harper said. “It has us questioning the security and viability of what we are doing, if we are impacted by something like an election.”

After discussions between Hippy Feet and Facebook, some of the ads were resurrected on the platform late last week; others remain disabled.

“We can’t be mad at the intention of the policy. It’s supposed to make Facebook and the world a safer place,” Mr. Harper said. “We just ended up at the wrong end of the stick.”

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