05.06.24 Big Tech

Facebook failed to block thousands of political ads peddling false information

Thousands of scam adverts featuring AI-manipulated videos and false information about politicians have been circulating on Facebook in recent months, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) can reveal.

The ease with which they appear to have evaded the platform’s rules raises concerns about the ability of Meta, Facebook’s parent company, to curb misinformation in the runup to major elections across Europe.

TBIJ found more than 8,000 misleading ads altogether. Most were trying to promote an investment scam, often using false news articles with attention-grabbing headlines.

One mentioned a banking “scandal” involving Labour leader Keir Starmer, another claimed that “the charges against [Swedish politician] Jonas Sjöstedt are confirmed!” and a third bid “goodbye to [Polish politician] Slawomir Mentzen” alongside photos from a cemetery.

Other fake articles were accompanied by manipulated images of politicians being arrested or lying injured in hospital.

Users clicking through would then be taken to cloned pages replicating the websites of well-known media outlets. The stories – sometimes unrelated to the original advert – often featured fake quotes from a public figure detailing how they had made a fortune from a new investment platform.

One of the misleading Facebook adverts used by scammers

TBIJ also discovered a separate set of pages that had used AI-edited videos of politicians, including Romanian president Klaus Iohannis and Italian president Sergio Mattarella, to promote a scheme promising to “get rid of diabetes in 7 days”.

A Meta spokesperson told TBIJ its systems removed “nearly all the ads cited in the report at the time the ads were run”. However, at the time of TBIJ’s analysis, Meta appeared to have taken action against fewer than half of the ads.

Flouting the rules

TBIJ used Meta’s ad library, a public database, to examine Facebook ads featuring 20 prominent European politicians that had been published over the past five months. The politicians were chosen after TBIJ found them to be featured in scam adverts.

They included leader of the French far-right National Rally party Marine Le Pen, co-chair of Germany’s AfD party Alice Weidel, German minister for foreign affairs Annalena Baerbock, Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister Xavier Bettel and former Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė.

Given how many ads featuring these 20 politicians were found to have made it through Meta’s systems, the total number of these types of posts in circulation is likely to be far higher.

In total, TBIJ identified more than 10,000 ads that were in breach of a transparency rule put in place by Meta that states ads featuring or mentioning political figures must be labelled as political. The onus is on the user posting the ads to label them appropriately.

Ads that are found to have infringed the policy are removed but often this does not happen for days after they are posted. The longest-running ad found by TBIJ had circulated for 37 days before the account was taken down.

Some of the ads also appeared to be in breach of other Meta policies, including those governing acceptable business practices on manipulated media.

A Meta spokesperson told TBIJ: “As part of our ads review process – which can include both automated and human reviews – we have several layers of analysis and detection, both before and after an ad goes live. It is against our policies to run ads that improperly use images of public or political figures for deceptive purposes, and we remove these ads when detected.”

Statistics on the number of views and amount of money spent by the campaigns were only available for 300 ads, which had been flagged by Meta as political. Altogether, these appear to have amassed anywhere up to 300,000 views before they were removed and cost up to £5,000 to publish. These represent less than 3% of all the ads found by TBIJ.

The most prolific account, which was still active when TBIJ conducted the analysis, was found to have posted 537 ads. Only 38 had been taken down.

Meta’s enforcement of its rules also varied hugely in effectiveness from one country to another. It was particularly strong in the UK, where 94% of all ads identified by TBIJ had been removed, whereas in the Netherlands and Spain action had been taken against only 26% and 20% of ads respectively.

Reporters: Francesca Visser and Pri Bengani
Tech editor: Jasper Jackson
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Ero Partsakoulaki

Our reporting on Big Tech is funded by Open Society Foundations. None of our funders have any influence over our editorial decisions or output.