"It's important that Facebook is a place where people with different views can share their ideas," wrote Mark Zuckerberg following the violent "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville. "But when someone tries to silence others or attacks them based on who they are or what they believe, that hurts us all and is unacceptable." That tender sentiment, however, apparently didn't stop the tech giant from using an anti-Muslim ad as a guinea pig for its new video formats during the final weeks of last year's election.
According to a new report from Bloomberg, Facebook offered its expertise to the rightwing advocacy group Secure America Now to help enhance the reach of its "anti-refugee" campaign in swing states. One of these efforts allegedly included testing out its then-new vertical video format. Working with Harris Media, a digital public affairs firm, Facebook reportedly designed a case study for different formats using an anti-Islam video titled "Are We Safe?"
The ad juxtaposes the face of a young girl with stark black-and-white photos of Muslims who have carried out terror attacks in America. While the video's description on YouTube touts the importance of strengthening our weakened "national security," two of the four attackers shown are American-born. According to its site, Secure America Now was formed to protest the Ground Zero Mosque.
Facebook rolled out the ad in 12 different versions, according to Bloomberg, and then surveyed its users who had seen it to find out which of the dozen formats was favoured the most.
Citing internal ad agency reports and five sources involved with the campaign, the Bloomberg report says the test was part of larger competition between Facebook and Google for several millions ad dollars from Secure America Now, which ran "a mix of anti-Hillary Clinton and anti-Islam messages" targeting swing-state voters during the final days of the election. Between the two platforms, the ads were reportedly viewed millions of times.
Facebook has said that it doesn't want to influence voters, but that directly contradicts its own marketing efforts. A page by Facebook detailing Senator Patrick Toomey's ad campaign on the site, for instance, is titled "The best content to influence voters." We have reached out to Facebook, Harris Media, and Secure America Now for comment and will update this post if and when we hear back.
Facebook has been focused on convincing the public that it is working hard to prevent foreign election interference after it was discovered that thousands of Russian-bought ads appeared on the platform. But the company seemingly has no problem helping companies at home spread bigoted, misleading messages on the site to influence voters. Especially if it will help them figure out their hot new video format.