By John Hood
RALEIGH — It’s not personal, it’s just business — or so Facebook assures me.
On this matter, I’m inclined to believe the company (now called Meta by its CEO and nearly a dozen other human beings). That doesn’t make my latest encounter with the social-media giant any less frustrating, however. I just spent many days jumping through its authorization hoops so I could run political ads on a Facebook page I manage. And even after finishing the process, I still had my ad rejected and had to appeal the decision multiple times.
Before you accuse me of burying the lede, let me clarify. I am not abandoning my longtime role as political commentator in order to run for office. I am, of course, unelectable. Thousands of highly opinionated newspaper columns and TV appearances over more than three decades will do that to the best of men, and also to me.
No, what set off Facebook’s alarm was something else entirely. It flagged me as attempting to use boosted posts on a non-political page in order to promote a political cause. That’s a no-no, according to the policies Facebook adopted amidst criticism of the role its ads played in the 2016 election and subsequent controversies.
The company now requires special authorization and disclosures in order to run “ads made by, on behalf of, or about a candidate for public office.” Facebook imposes the same requirements for ads about “social issues” that are “sensitive topics that are heavily debated” and “may influence the outcome of an election or result in/relate to existing or proposed legislation.”
Earlier this year I published my first novel, Mountain Folk. It’s a historical fantasy set during the Revolutionary War. To promote the book, I set up a Facebook page and occasionally spend a few dollars boosting posts about its characters, settings, and themes.
It was one of those boosted posts that Facebook rejected multiple times. The post consisted almost entirely of review excerpts. As best I can determine, this was the offending passage, taken from a magazine review:
“Fairies, elves, dwarves, water maidens, monsters, and more. Soldiers and heroes of the American Revolution. Founding Fathers of our country like Washington and Jefferson. Cherokee and Shawnee women and warriors. A minister turned soldier and politician who is unembarrassed to quote Scripture. Throw all these ingredients into a stew pot of fiction, turn up the burner, and you soon have bubbling on the stove John Hood’s Mountain Folk.”
See the problem? The reviewer described George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as “Founding Fathers of our country.” That could be construed as an implicit endorsement of candidates for public office — assuming Facebook readers possess time machines, that is, or that some evil genius is reanimating the corpses of dead presidents to effect a zombie takeover of the federal government (which would, I admit, be something of an improvement).
Another explanation may be that the post described a Revolutionary War hero as a minister “unembarrassed to quote Scripture.” The role of devout Christians in the founding of the country could be construed as a “sensitive topic,” as could the roles of Cherokee and Shawnee leaders. Or perhaps the post was deemed an attempt to hinder the legislative prospects of the Elf Liberation Act.
Okay, I know perfectly well that algorithms are involved, and that Facebook felt compelled to tighten up its advertising policies after a slew of politically charged attacks by powerful individuals and activist groups. But the absurdity of my case merely serves to illustrate the greater absurdity of the present moment.
Upset by claims you consider baseless or ideas you consider objectionable? The proper remedy is neither government restrictions on political speech nor heavy-handed policies by social-media platforms. Don’t hinder debate. Encourage it. “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead,” Jefferson famously said, “nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Official disclaimer: this is not an endorsement of Washington/Jefferson ’24.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution (MountainFolkBook.com).