Facebook allowed several thousand adverts and posts that violated UK law, including some for dubious cures for Covid-19, until it was notified by local authorities earlier this year.
The social network deleted more than 2,000 advertisements and promotional posts to UK users between January and June after being told by the Advertising Standards Authority that they breached its regulations.
Until it was notified, Facebook allowed ads that preyed “on public health fears or anxieties” and tried to sell cures for Covid-19 including vitamin shots or intravenous drips, according to the ASA, which also ordered the removal of posts promoting Botox, because it is illegal in the UK to advertise prescription-only medicine.
The company said close to 1,500 further posts, accounts and ads were taken down because of “the promotion and sale of regulated goods and services”, 30 were deleted because of misuse of private information, and 20 were removed “for a range of offences including gambling, violation of privacy, and violating local laws on hate speech”.
Facebook’s decision to allow the ads raises more questions about the social network’s ability and willingness to police itself, and about how it is coping with different rules for advertising and other content across different countries.
Altogether, it took down about 3,600 Facebook posts, pages and Instagram accounts in the UK for illegal content in the first half of the year, according to data from its latest transparency report.
This was more than tenfold the number of takedowns in previous six-month periods since Facebook began publishing the data at the beginning of 2014.
Matthew Wilson, head of media and public affairs at the ASA, said the watchdog had stepped up its search for problem ads on Facebook, using third-party software from Brandwatch to identify them.
“It’s gone up because we are reporting more. We are moving away from [being] complaint-led to proactive monitoring using technology,” he said, adding that Facebook had co-operated with their requests.
Mr Wilson said: “Facebook has loads of mechanisms in place to catch potentially thousands of bad actors or worrying content. They are always trying to refine those processes but due to the sheer volume there is a game of cat and mouse between the platform and bad actors.”
Facebook has also come under fire for mishaps related to its vetting of political advertising during the US election period, including several instances where it has allowed rule-breaching misinformation and hate speech to stay up until it was reported by researchers or the press.
Facebook said the increase in the number of consumer complaints about inappropriate ads was because of both Covid-19 and work with several new partners. The company also partnered with the ASA last Christmas on a project to improve awareness of rules on Botox and to detect and remove content that violated the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code.
“We’re committed to making Facebook and Instagram a positive place for all and our ongoing collaboration with the ASA and CAP on campaigns like this one are key,” said Steve Hatch, Facebook’s vice-president for northern Europe. “We were pleased to offer advertising support so this important message is seen by over a million people in the UK.”
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