Facebook removes over 100 adverts for Donald Trump’s businesses

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Facebook has removed more than 100 adverts for Donald Trump’s hotels and golf courses after ruling they had breached strict new transparency rules surrounding political advertising and failed to disclose who had paid for the promotions, The Scotsman can reveal.

More than a dozen firms owned by the US president have had adverts pulled after Facebook’s machine learning model deemed them to be “related to politics and issues of national importance” and not simply promotional tools for Trump’s commercial interests.

Donald Trump has owned the Turnberry resort since 2014. Picture: John Devlin

Donald Trump has owned the Turnberry resort since 2014. Picture: John Devlin

The ads taken down include several posted by Trump’s flagship Scottish property, Turnberry, the first of which was launched last July, the same month the 72-year-old spent a weekend at the South Ayrshire resort playing golf.

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In all, some 117 adverts for the Trump Organisation’s companies around the world were adjudged to have fallen foul of the new rules, which were introduced last year amid growing criticism of the spread of misinformation and state-sponsored interference on the social network.

After being presented by The Scotsman with a list of the pulled adverts, Facebook launched an investigation. It found the three Turnberry promotions had been erroneously flagged as political. The company is continuing to look into how the rest of the adverts came to be removed.

One of the Trump adverts that Facebook admitted was mistakenly removed

One of the Trump adverts that Facebook admitted was mistakenly removed

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While questions have been asked in the past about the effectiveness of Facebook’s artificial intelligence detection system after other companies had their adverts pulled, the removal of the adverts for Trump’s companies represents the most embarrassing blow yet to Facebook’s attempts to bring transparency to political advertising on its platform.

The mistake will also provide ammunition for those on the right who regard the world’s biggest social network as a malign influence.

Only last month, Trump himself railed against Facebook in an unsubstantiated broadside on Twitter, accusing it of “bias” amid speculation his administration could impose regulations on the site and other social media platforms.

Graphic: Tim Hopkinson

Graphic: Tim Hopkinson

On Tuesday, meanwhile, Trump’s eldest Son, Donald Jr, executive vice-president of the Trump Organisation, claimed Facebook and other social networks were trying to “systematically stifle the viewpoints held by half the country.”

The process which led Facebook to remove the corporate adverts for Trump’s firms is unclear, but the company says all its adverts are scrutinised through a combination of artificial intelligence and human reviewers. It is understood the adverts for Trump’s firms were targeted because all feature his surname.

A day after The Scotsman contacted Facebook’s communications team enquiring about the trend, the details of the removed Trump Turnberry adverts had been removed from its Ad Archive, an online repository of live and expired political advertising on the platform. However, the vast majority of the flagged adverts remain in the archive at the time of writing.

Facebook said its machine learning model will improve with every advert it reviews. The company is also adding 3,000 staff to its team of human reviewers.

An analysis by The Scotsman of the raw data compiled by Facebook shows the 117 Trump adverts, which ran in countries including the UK and US, garnered up to 823,000 impressions before they were removed.

Although the purge of the Trump adverts began last June, several were visible to Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users as recently as last month.

According to its Ad Archive, Facebook ruled that in every instance the adverts had gone live without a ‘paid for by’ disclaimer label showing who had bankrolled them, and decided their content was not strictly commercial in nature.

In an explanatory note for each advert that was removed, the company explained: “After the ad started running, we determined that the ad was related to politics and issues of national importance and required the label. The ad was taken down.”

Under Facebook’s tightened rules, introduced last May in the US followed by the UK in November, it distinguishes political adverts as those which are “made by, on behalf of, or about a current or former candidate for public office, a political party, a political action committee, or advocates for the outcome of an election to public office.”

It adds that the definition extends to adverts that “relate to any election, referendum, or ballot initiative.”

In the UK, three overlapping adverts for Trump Turnberry, the South Ayrshire golf and hotel resort, were among those removed by Facebook.

Posted with different interior photographs of Turnberry, the adverts all offered accommodation and dinner at the historic resort for a “special rate,” starting at £289.

The first advert ran from 30 July to 30 September last year, with the second and third adverts - which went live on 29 August and 5 September respectively - also running until the end of September.

According to Facebook’s data, the three adverts cost up to $300 (£233 ) and received as many as 12,000 impressions from the social media firm’s users across the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, and further afield. The Turnberry page has more than 21,000 followers.

The Trump Store, which sells various Trump-branded goods to consumers in the US, was also also adjudged to have broken the rules with two adverts it ran less than a fortnight after the president’s visit to his Turnberry resort last year. The ads, visible on Facebook between 25 July and 30 July, promoted Turnberry-branded baseball caps and polo shirts. The retail arm of Trump’s companies had 20 ads pulled in total.

The vast majority of the adverts taken down promoted Trump’s US businesses, with one resort - Trump National Golf Club Hudson Valley in New York - seeing 28 of its adverts shut down.

Some 13 Trump Organisation businesses were targeted, including high profile properties such as Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York Trump, which saw four of its UK adverts deleted.

Other Trump firms impacted include Trump International Hotel in Washington DC, and the Trump National Doral golf course in Miami, Florida. The latter was one of nine Trump golf resorts to see its adverts taken offline.

The Scotsman has contacted the Trump Organisation for comment.

While Facebook’s platform has been widely acknowledged as a key driver in Trump’s 2016 election victory, thanks in no small part to the misuse of its data by Cambridge Analytica and Russian-bought ads, the scale of the expenditure on Facebook advertising by Trump’s businesses is a mere fraction of that by his political campaign.

Data gathered by Facebook’s Ad Archive indicate the upper spend level on the pulled ads for his hotels and golf resorts stands at $14,800 (£11,504 ).

By contrast, the same source shows that the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Donald J Trump for President Inc have spent more than $9.02m (£7.01m ) on ads since May 2018.

Last November, Facebook removed an anti-immigration advert widely condemned as racist, reasoning that it violated its policy against “sensational content.” The advert had been paid for by Donald J Trump for President Inc.