COEUR d’ALENE — Just before Memorial Day, Cory Jane English wanted to boost a Facebook post she had made about her daughter, who served in Iraq. Boosting a post is one way Facebook gets its users to pay money so they can reach more people with their content. English, the Democratic nominee for Legislative District 4’s state senate seat, had a message that resonates across the political divide: Remember those who died, and don’t forget those who came home with wounds, seen and unseen.
Her boost attempt was time-sensitive, since it related to the quickly approaching holiday. However, when she tried to boost the post, she was hit with a demand that she verify her identity. She quickly tried to comply, but it proved almost impossible for her to have Facebook accept her scanned forms of identification. She even had a professional marketer, Adam Graves at Range NW, get in on the action. He had difficulties, she explained, but finally got past the scanning step of the verification process.
Then she had to wait for days and days while Facebook — the online, instant, social media giant — relied on the postal service to deliver her a special code. The letter can take up to 10 days to arrive, according to Facebook.
Then when it came, Facebook still wouldn’t let her boost her posts.
“We thought we were good to go. But now there’s something else,” she said.
When English appealed to Facebook, the corporate giant doubled down on unhelpfulness.
“They send the same instructions again that you think you already completed,” she said.
Her experience isn’t the only one that local candidates have run into while trying to use Facebook to campaign for office this year. Democrats and Republicans locally have said that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s company has been, shall we say, less than easy to work with. Part of the difficulty stems from changes Facebook inaugurated on April 23, when Facebook rolled out a new process by which political campaigns and activists would have to verify their identities before advertising on the platform.
“We believe these efforts will make it more difficult for people to administer a Page using a fake account,” said a Facebook release on April 6. It said the verification process was among the “steps we’re taking to prevent abuse and ensure that people have the context and information they need when viewing political content on our platforms.”
Cory’s husband, Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Dan English, agreed with the company’s stated intent to provide more transparency. Dan thinks Facebook plays a vital role in political communications today.
“Facebook is a very important way to get your message out these days,” he said. “A lot of campaign efforts used to be direct mail, etc. Now for people of all ages, Facebook is a real important medium.”
However, the net effect of the company’s policy change has been to stifle civic discourse instead of encourage it.
For older people used to direct mail and door-to-door campaigning, having to sort through technical guides that only a tech aficionado could love constitutes an additional barrier to political action. Part of the problem is Facebook’s poor customer service, the Englishes said.
“You can’t talk to a human being,” said Cory, with Dan adding, “It’s very user-unfriendly. There’s no real way to get help if you’re not tech-inclined.”
The whole ordeal has cost Cory’s campaign dearly, said Dan. They initially spent dozens of hours trying to resolve the issue, then lost a week waiting for the code in the mail. Between the delays, and trying to post and boost something but getting rejected a day later, and trying to verify Cory’s identity over and over again, Dan estimated that Facebook’s intransigence had cost the English campaign weeks of precious time.
The difficulties have had a chilling effect, he explained.
Posts on Cory’s campaign Facebook page don’t show up on anyone’s news feed unless they have already followed her page, Dan said. When Cory boosted posts in April and May, the campaign “didn’t spend much money but reached thousands of people instead of dozens,” he said. “Since they changed that, it’s dropped off like a rock.”
He likened the difference to going from being on the front page of a newspaper to being buried in the legal section in the back of the paper.
But the problem isn’t limited to older generations of political activists. Younger candidates Rebecca Schroeder, Roger Garlock, Hari Heath, and Nick Henderson also said the platform has given them headaches.
While campaigning for Legislative District 4 state representative, the Democratic candidate Schroeder said she had “gone through the authorization process, been approved, and still had issues.” Garlock, who campaigned for state representative as a Republican in the district, also said he had some issues using Facebook. Heath, a Benewah County Republican who campaigned for state representative in Legislative District 5, said, “I had massive, repeating problems with boosting. They claimed there was too much text, but it was built into jpegs or photos, with little intro text. I repeatedly had to get a manual review, which often didn’t work, or for very long. I boosted about eight or so posts. Some with lots of text worked better than minimal text. Subjects like guns, abortion and hemp seemed to have more problems,” said Heath.
However, Dan Hanks, Democratic candidate for state representative in District 3, said the change to Facebook’s policies haven’t caused any problems for his campaign.
“There are some slight differences on what can be boosted, but nothing significant,” said Hanks.
Mary Strow, communications director for the Idaho Republican Party, said the loss of Facebook advertising is a major problem for campaigns. “Facebook is a huge, huge deal for candidates and campaigns. In Idaho it’s the best way to reach people by social media,” she said. The new process is cumbersome, mysterious, and hard to explain to candidates without being there in person, said Strow. In addition, Facebook’s demand for users’ Social Security numbers and copies of their drivers’ licenses is a recipe for identity theft disaster. But, she said, there is no recourse. “What was I going to do? They had us over a barrel. We have to use Facebook.”
Shelby Scott, political director for the Idaho Democratic Party, said “Facebook wasn’t really thinking about rural areas when they were putting this process into place.” The company refuses to mail verification codes to post office boxes, which many candidates in Idaho use as their normal mailing addresses, she explained. In addition, the party has “a lot of candidates who have done everything they’re supposed to, but for whatever reason Facebook still isn’t approving their ads.” Scott said 30-45 percent of Idaho Democratic campaigns have run into difficulties working through the new Facebook procedures. “It’s frustrating that it’s happening in the June and July of an election year,” said Scott. At the recent state convention, she spent time working with the English campaign, but Facebook still didn’t budge, she said.
Congressional candidate Nick Henderson said Facebook began censoring him long before the April 23 verification process rollout. The Republican upstart and grandson of local political legend Rep. Frank Henderson had used social media to spread his campaign message for months while campaigning on a small budget and working two weeks per month as a helicopter pilot serving offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
“That made it hard to make it to every event being held across Idaho, and so social media presence was our answer for that,” said Henderson.
The Iraq veteran said Facebook had not interfered with his political posts while using the platform as a private individual. “I’ve been a Facebook user since approximately 2008 and have never found myself in a ‘Facebook jail’ or having had content reported, brought down, or censored in any way.”
That all changed when the candidate for Idaho’s First Congressional District seat started posting at CPAC this February. The Conservative Political Action Conference held in Washington, D.C. serves as an annual “who’s who” of the conservative movement where attendees discuss hot-button political issues. At CPAC, Henderson said he posted a Facebook Live video of himself regarding gun rights. Facebook flagged the content as “Promoting Violence or Self Harm” and took it down, said Henderson. The next day, he posted another Facebook Live video, this time regarding marijuana and the opioid crisis. Facebook flagged the video as “Promoting Drug Use” and took down the video.
“We began lengthy appeals processes on each video, ultimately posting different versions, and missing our target window for the boosts,” he said.
Facebook then began taking several days to approve advertisements for his campaign. Henderson said prior to this, it usually took only 15 minutes.
“Timeliness in marketing is key, and posting content to be advertised and having to wait three days dents the relevance in certain cases,” he said.
Then after Zuckerberg testified before Congress April 10, Henderson said his entire personal account was locked out, and an arduous process of identity reverification was required to regain access to his account.
“They acted as though they were doing me a favor and returning control of my account to me from the hands of a hacker or something,” said Henderson. In addition, Facebook required him to review all of the posts he had shared from his campaign page to his personal page, which included articles he had shared from Fox News, Breitbart, and posts about the Second Amendment. They had been flagged as “dangerous” and in “violation of community standards.”
After completing the process and finally regaining access to his personal page, Facebook hit Henderson with another blow May 4 by totally blocking him from creating or boosting any campaign advertisements until he completed another lengthy identity reverification process. Because Facebook insisted on sending Henderson a pin code via postal mail, the process consumed the last crucial days leading up to the May 15 Republican primary election, said Henderson.
“This notice came less than two weeks before the primary, where the final push in our social media marketing campaign is critical to reaching voters in Idaho,” he said.
Henderson said his experience is just one more proof of Facebook’s bias against leaders with conservative viewpoints. Zuckerberg was grilled on Facebook’s treatment of conservatives during his April 10 testimony before Congress.
“I firmly believe that there are two very different algorithms being used at Facebook headquarters in flagging, disabling, and deleting content,” said Henderson. “We already know Facebook has identified each user as Conservative or Liberal. It is not a big step to get to a place where people Facebook flags as conservatives are subject to a stricter algorithm than liberals. It’s all 1’s and 0’s.”
A Facebook representative said the company could not comment on Henderson’s posts in question without first reviewing them individually. A spokesman also said July 3 that “This new ad policy is meant to prevent bad actors from interfering in elections by requiring people advertising about important national issues and political issues to get authorized and include a ‘paid for label.’ Enforcement is never going to be perfect, but we think knowing who paid for an ad is important and we’ll continue to work on improving how it is enforced.”