As a marketer for independent documentary films, Facebook is my go-to platform for advertising our studio’s latest project. A year ago, this process was simple: set up trailer ads and start getting views.
But under Facebook’s new advertising policy, if advertised content is about “social issues, elections or politics,” you’re in a bind. In that case, you need approval from inside the country you want to advertise in. As a result, Facebook’s new advertising policy has turned the platform into an agent of censorship for authoritarian regimes.
No one makes documentaries for the money. Documentarians want to expose injustice. The Center for Media & Social Impact found 58% of documentary directors and producers describe themselves as a “Social Issue Advocate Filmmaker.”
Social media was once an agent of change, connecting like-minded people to organize movements and expose oppression.
Our film, Badass Beauty Queen: The Story of Anastasia Lin became available on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon on July 23. It follows former Miss World Canada Anastasia Lin as she competes in the world finals, campaigning for religious freedom and against organ harvesting of prisoners of political conscience in her native country of China. Because of her outspokenness on China’s atrocities, she was barred from the finals in Sanya, China and declared persona non grata in the land of her birth.
The film follows Anastasia as she speaks out for Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghurs, House Christians, and other prisoners of conscience. The regime tries to censor her by threatening her father in China, a frequent tactic to silence dissidents.
But the effort backfires. Anastasia lands on the front page of newspapers and a torrent of coverage follows. She’s allowed to compete again in 2016, with the finals held in Washington, D.C. But this time she is barred from speaking to the media by the British-owned Miss World Organization itself.
Even with Anastasia’s story now in film, it is still censored. This time, it’s Facebook limiting the film trailer’s reach by disapproving my ads with the following explanation: “We require Pages to be authorized to run ads about social issues, elections or politics.”
I was fortunate to find a partner to promote the film to U.S. audiences. But even though Facebook does not operate in mainland China, there are many countries where we are unable to secure a representative willing to stand behind such a sensitive subject. The same would be true for many films touching on human rights abuses in repressive countries.
Facebook came under fire because of concerns that foreign and domestic players used it to spread disinformation during the U.S. presidential election. Now they’re taking steps, in Mark Zuckerberg’s words, toward “playing a meaningful role in promoting a healthy and resilient democracy.”
The trailer is about a young beauty queen speaking out against state-sanctioned organ harvesting and the torture of religious minorities, certainly that is “promoting ideals of a healthy and resilient democracy.” I thought perhaps it was just some bot misreading my ad. But when I reached a real human at Facebook, they replied: “It’s not the wording in this case. For example, in one ad you are promoting a movie about social change, this topic is considered a matter of national importance.”
The Facebook chat rep continued: “If you’re looking to keep running these types of ads in the future. It would be really beneficial to have political approval first. You can only be authorized for the country you live in… If you want to run the ads in China for example, you would have to have an admin that lives there.”
Has Facebook considered the repercussions of someone in China (hypothetically, since Facebook doesn’t operate there) or another country without basic freedoms would face if they tried to authorize ads on topics deemed “of national importance”? They must submit personally identifying information to promote these messages, and they could be seen as cooperating with foreign parties challenging their regime.
Facebook is desperate to get into China and gain a billion users. This authorization process seems like a convenient way to censor topics the regime wants kept from the international community or their own citizens.
My chat interlocutor continued: “If there was no censorship, you can imagine how many people may put out false information or cause problems. For this reason, everyone who creates this type of ad must be reviewed.”
This argument seems to conflate the problem of fake news with the separate issue of foreign influence. Ensuring that no one outside a country can promote political content does nothing to ensure that content is accurate, and in fact, it’s often quite the contrary in countries ruled by regimes that seek to suppress the truth.
Facebook claims they are just following the regime’s rules. Those rules, however, do the opposite of supporting “a healthy democracy” in nations where rulers are clearly opposed to such a thing.
Sometimes, the only people who can expose oppression widely are outside of that country. This ad policy prevents that essential support. Flagging foreign ads in this way enables tyranny.
This goes beyond providing transparency for political advertising. This is an act of censorship, and Facebook is making itself the tool.
Judith Cheung is the marketing & distribution manager for Badass Beauty Queen: The Story of Anastasia Lin a documentary produced by Canadian production company Lofty Sky Pictures. For more information about the film visit www.badassbeautyqueen.film.