Facebook decided on Friday to allow a kind of paid political message that bypassed many of the social network's rules for political ads. This shows the difficulty tech companies and regulators have in keeping up with the changing nature of paid political messages.
Facebook's policy change takes place a few days after Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg exploited a void to spread humorous messages for his campaign on the accounts of popular Instagram personalities, followed by millions of younger people.
The Bloomberg campaign had paid over a dozen social media influencers publish Bloomberg memes through their Instagram accounts, each of which has millions of followers.
The memes awkwardly showed the 78-year-old candidate chatting with popular social media influencers like "Tank Sinatra" and asked them to help him improve his profile among younger people.
"Can you post something? a meme that lets everyone know I'm the cool candidate? "Bloomberg wrote on one of the exchanges posted by an account called FuckJerry, which has almost 1
Important @ MikeBloomberg updates from your friends at @NBCNews : These DMs are actually real! #memese00verywhere  cc: @MauraBarrettNBC @JoshNBCNews @suz_ciechalski pic.twitter.com/IyepzxisBJ
It was much more than self-deprecating humor that was used to sell the candidate's old man's appeal using a tactic previously used primarily to sell skin care products or clothing subscription services.
But the lack of control and clarity Rules regarding influencer marketing, not to mention their effectiveness in reaching younger audiences, make them ripe for abuse.
In fact, Bloomberg's efforts circumvented many of the rules that tech companies imposed on political advertisements to protect US elections from malicious domestic and foreign interference.
Online political ads were controversial, especially after it became known that Russia had used them to influence the 2016 presidential election. In response, Facebook has put in place a set of rules to prevent repetition, despite refusing to review political ads and refusing to forbid obviously wrong messages.
"This is a new type of activity that was simple did not exist when the rules for political communication on the Internet were last updated," said Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub of the Bundestag election commission.
Friday's policy change includes what Facebook calls “branded content,” sponsored articles posted by ordinary users, typically paid for by companies or organizations. Advertisers pay influential users directly for posting through their brand.
Facebook does not make money directly from such posts and does not consider them advertising. As a result, branded content was not subject to Facebook’s advertising guidelines, which require candidates and campaigns to verify their identity with a US ID or mailing address and how much they spent on each ad.
Until Friday, Facebook tried to prevent campaigns from using such branded content by preventing them from using a tool that advertisers could use to post such posts on Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
With rule change, campaigns in the United States can now use this tool. They have been authorized by Facebook to run political ads and to specify who paid for the sponsored posts. Campaigns that don't use the tool like Bloomberg run the risk of locking their accounts.
"After hearing about several campaigns, we agree that there is room for brand content in the political discussion on our platforms," Facebook said in an exclusive statement to the Associated Press. "We allow US political candidates to work with authors to publish this content."
Politicians still don't need to disclose how much they paid the influencers to run the posts. And the posts won't appear in Facebook's ad library, where political ads are publicly cataloged and other campaigns, journalists, and surveillance groups can view the type of news that politicians are driving in the election.
Facebook's new rules do not apply to someone who merely creates or shares a post about a politician without being paid for it.
The Bloomberg campaign declined to say how much it paid for the sponsored contributions or whether more was in the works.