By Sarah Frier
New York-based businesswoman Ruth Harrigan usually sells her honey and beeswax products in souvenir shops. But with Covid-19 pausing tourism, she’s been almost entirely dependent on Facebook ads to drive online sales. On Nov. 11, this new financial lifeline was abruptly cut when the social media company blocked her HoneyGramz ad account for violating its policies. She couldn’t imagine what about her tiny honey-filled gifts would have triggered the problem.
Friends told Harrigan to just wait a couple of days and the problem might resolve itself. She waited, until she lost an estimated $5,000 in revenue.
“I was getting a little anxious thinking, ‘Oh my God, Black Friday is around the corner, most of my sales for the year happen in November and December and that’s it,’” she explained. “I said, ‘If I’m shut down any longer than this, it’ll cripple me.’”
Harrigan is one of millions of small business advertisers who have come to rely on Facebook Inc. because the coronavirus has shut down many traditional retail channels. The social media giant has provided new sales opportunities for these entrepreneurs, but also exposed them to the company’s misfiring content-moderation software, limited options for customer support and lack of transparency about how to fix problems.
Facebook’s human moderators have focused on election and Covid-19 misinformation this year, so the company has leaned more on artificial intelligence algorithms to monitor other areas of the platform. That’s left many small businesses caught in Facebook’s automated filters, unable to advertise through the service and frustrated because they don’t know why.
The same weekend Harrigan’s account went down, Ivonne Sanchez, who runs a permanent makeup clinic in Ottawa, found her ads were blocked too, for what Facebook said was a “policy violation.” Her business, which had to shut down between March and June for the pandemic, was relying on Facebook to recover financially. The account was restored the next day without explanation, but “in the middle of a crucial shopping season, it left us shaken,” she said. “This experience makes us very nervous about investing dollars into a system that is operated seemingly by a bot.”
“It just exploded. They turned up the AI recently -- somebody changed something -- and all of the sudden everybody was getting shut down.” -- Justin Brooke, founder of Adskills.com
Even if an ad account gets restored, businesses lose crucial momentum. Facebook’s advertising algorithm takes a couple of weeks to figure out which users may be interested in an ad, to refine the targeting. Jessica Grossman, chief executive officer of digital marketing firm In Social, said when her clients get hit, the hardest part is telling them their campaigns have to start over and their money won’t go as far.
“Facebook almost doesn’t realize the impact of their own algorithm and what that means,” Grossman said. There seemed to be no logic to the account bans imposed on In Social’s clients, she added. A pizza vending machine company, a reusable water bottle company, a coffee delivery service, a business coach and a hair weave company were all suspended.
“We know it can be frustrating to experience any type of business disruption, especially at such a critical time of the year,” Facebook said in a statement. “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.”
Facebook often touts its commitment to small businesses, as it defends its ever larger hold over their economic future. On a recent earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this was a “major focus” that’s “more important now than ever” as Covid-19 shifts commerce online. During a July ad boycott by major brands, Facebook’s revenue still grew, bolstered by small businesses rushing online to try to survive. The company added more tools this year for small businesses to sell directly to customers through its site, hoping these virtual shops become advertisers, too.
But while business owners agree that Facebook is a lifeline during the pandemic, they say it’s also an unreliable partner. Facebook’s ban on political ads around the U.S. election, for instance, affected companies that have no connection to politics, like a business selling bracelets to benefit refugees. A seed company was also blocked for sharing a picture of Walla Walla onions -- which were “overtly sexual,” according to Facebook’s AI.
The company’s policies against cryptocurrency frequently trapped ads from a solar roof company, Human SOLR, because some of the acronyms used by the business are similar to cryptocurrency tokens. After that issue was resolved, Human SOLR’s ads were banned again for using phrases like “see if your roof qualifies.” Facebook’s software guessed the company was selling financial products, which are more regulated. After enough flags on the account, Brett Lee, who runs the business, gave up on Facebook ads. “My business is at a complete standstill,” said Lee, based in St. George, Utah. “My employees’ lives are at a standstill.”
GFP Delivered, a Chicago-based produce company advertising a way for people to avoid the grocery store during Covid-19, had its Facebook ads shut down for two months without clear explanation, according to owner George Fourkas. He said he was able to fix the problem only after reaching out to old college friends who work at Facebook.
Yaniv Gershom, co-founder of digital marketing firm 4AM Media, said he had to cut 12 jobs partly because of Facebook ad account bans, which have lasted almost six months. “They give you zero feedback,” he added. “The only people who are OK are massive spenders who get a Facebook rep that can escalate issues and find out what’s wrong.”
In some cases, the business impact is hard to quantify. Matt Snow, co-founder of an apparel business called Boredwalk, said Facebook’s automated systems inadvertently flagged 40% of his company’s product catalog as unsafe late last month. That left Snow targeting the wrong products to potential customers. He eventually noticed and quickly resolved the issue with a Facebook sales manager, but Snow doesn’t know how long the products were banned, or even which other items were being advertised in their place. “Facebook is very black box about all their internal machinations,” he said.
Facebook has been automating content moderation for years, a transition it highlights in a quarterly report detailing how much content the company removes. In more nuanced categories such as “hate speech,” Facebook removed almost 95% of violating posts automatically in the third quarter, up from just 53% two years ago.
But that increase comes with more corrections. Facebook removed 22 million posts for hate speech in the third quarter, more than 3 times as many as a year earlier. The number of posts it later restored jumped by 40%.
Appealing these often-automated decisions has also become a lot harder. “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 wrote in its third-quarter report.
Advertisers have been particularly hurt by these automated decisions in recent months. “It just exploded. They turned up the AI recently -- somebody changed something -- and all of the sudden everybody was getting shut down,” said Justin Brooke, founder of Adskills.com, which teaches businesses how to market on Facebook. “What are these small businesses going to do? They’ve got families to feed.”
One of Brooke’s own Facebook ads has a small written disclaimer saying it wasn’t open to those trying to sell adult content. That got flagged and taken down. Facebook’s automated explanation? The post didn’t follow the company’s community standards on “nudity/sexual activity.”
The over-reaction by Facebook’s AI is a side effect of the company taking more responsibility for the content on its platform, according to Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity. “As we take more action, we remove more content, there’s more opportunities also for those to be in error,” he said during a recent press call.
That’s what HoneyGramz’s Harrigan was told happened to her account. She eventually got desperate enough to Google names of Facebook employees who might help. She found Rob Leathern, the company’s director of ad products, and sent him a message on Twitter. Miraculously, he responded. A few hours later, Facebook sent an email restoring 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 never happened.”
But Harrigan won’t forget. She printed off the email and pinned it to her office whiteboard. “It was really, really scary,” she said.