Facebook blocks racist Trump ad, but the damage is already done

After the Trump campaign produced and distributed a campaign ad last week that conflated the issue of violent crime and the so-called caravan of migrants headed for the US border, several broadcast networks including CNN decided it was racist, and refused to put it on the air. Even the traditionally Trump-supporting Fox News network chose to remove it, although it announced this only after NBC came under fire for airing the ad during its Sunday Night Football broadcast (one of the most popular programs on television, with an average audience of over 10 million people).

Even as all this was happening, however, the ad continued to be promoted and viewed on one of the biggest broadcast media networks in the world: Facebook. And that likely did as much or more damage as a Sunday Night Football ad when it comes to actually influencing potential voter behavior.

The ad, paid for by Donald J. Trump For President, stoked fears about the connection between crime and the caravan by focusing on the story of a murderer named Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented immigrant who shot and killed two sheriff’s deputies in Sacramento, Calif. in 2014. “Dangerous illegal criminals like cop killer Luis Bracamontes don’t care about our laws,” the ad said. The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to suggest that the migrant caravan is filled with criminals, even sending thousands of troops to the border to contain any potential violence, despite the fact that the caravan is hundreds of miles away from the US border, and most of the migrants are poor and starving.

In the wake of the controversy around NBC’s airing of it, Facebook said Monday afternoon that it had blocked any further paid promotion of the ad, and that the original had been allowed on the platform by mistake. “This ad violates Facebook’s advertising policy against sensational content so we are rejecting it,” the company said in a statement released to a number of media outlets. That means users, including the White House and other Trump supporters, can continue to post the video clip on their pages, but it can’t be promoted as an ad.

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But by the time the platform decided to block promotion of the video, somewhere between 3 million and 5 million people had likely already seen it in their feeds, according to the company’s own data, which it collects as part of its public database of political ads. That database was created in the wake of the controversy over ads and promoted posts that were tied to the infamous Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency, which were apparently designed to try to influence voters in the run-up to the 2016 election.

According to the Facebook data, the Trump campaign promoted the video by spending between $27,000 and $94,000 on 24 ads that were bought Sunday and Monday, and it apparently used the network’s targeting data to focus distribution of the ad on voters in Arizona and Florida. As a number of political observers have pointed out, those states are considered “swing” states, where the Republican party is hoping to win two important Senate races, and both states have large Hispanic populations. It seems fairly obvious the Trump campaign hoped to influence some of the voters in those states by peddling thinly-disguised racist theories about the migrant caravan, and Facebook provided the perfect targeting platform for doing so.

Approving the racist Trump ad by mistake is only the most recent in a series of errors and failures involving Facebook and political advertising. Last week, Vice News reported that it was able to buy ads in the name of every single sitting Senator in Congress (as part of its new rules, Facebook political ads have to carry a disclaimer saying who paid for them). Vice also reported that it managed to buy ads despite claiming that they were paid for by ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group. CNN, meanwhile, found a page run by an anti–Ted Cruz group that promoted the page using Facebook’s advertising tools despite having little or no identifying information about who paid for it. Based on what the group spent, it could theoretically have been seen by hundreds of thousands or even millions of potential Texas voters.

Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has talked about how the social network is determined to correct its political advertising problem, but the migrant Trump ad shows it still has a long way to go before it reaches that goal.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.