Facebook really ought to solve its fake ads problem

Facebook increasingly defines our ideas about truth and news, so they really ought to work a little harder to block completely fake and misleading advertising. If you aspire to be the safe playground everybody plays at, you don’t leave broken glass lying around — let alone take money from the people who scatter it there.

What are these fake ads?

Even as we argue about whether it spiked conservative-focused “trending stories,” Facebook is promoting blatantly false stories in its advertising. Perhaps you’ve seen one of these ads in the Facebook right rail. “We say goodbye to Sly,” implying that Sylvester Stallone is dead. Or “What’s missing in Peyton Manning’s HGH denial?”

At some level, all ads are clickbait, but these go a little further. If you click on one, you’ll get treated to a fake site. The Peyton Manning story, for example, appears to be ESPN, as you can see below:


But it’s not ESPN — check out the URL:

fake espn url

This is no satire. There’s no apology and no sly humor. It’s plain old bait and switch.

Despite the real-looking favicon next to “ESPN NEWS,” the site has nothing to do with ESPN. Read a few screens down or click on any link or menu item on the page and you’ll find that this is a sleazy ad for dietary supplements from a company with questionable business practices. ESPN either can’t or won’t take action, but frankly, they shouldn’t have to. Facebook should never have allowed this ad in the first place.

Why does Facebook accept these ads?

Facebook’s advertising terms of service won’t let you show sexy stuff, hook people with shocking pictures, or sell alcohol to minors. It also prohibits the following:

Deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or business practices. [How about misleading sites that look like legitimate news sites?]

Images that contain “before-and-after” images or images that contain unexpected or unlikely results. [The fake ESPN page contains exactly those kinds of before-and-after images, although the ad itself doesn’t.]

Content leading to external landing pages that provide an unexpected or disruptive experience. This includes misleading ad positioning, such as overly sensationalized headlines, and leading people to landing pages that contain minimal original content and a majority of unrelated or low quality ad content. [How about external landing pages that are misleading by masquerading as another site?]

Perhaps these “fake news” ads skirt the edge of those guidelines. But given the proliferation of fake news on Facebook, content that’s much harder to identify, you’d think Facebook would take this chance to upgrade its systems to reject these misleading ads. There are dozens of them, they’ve persisted for at least a year, and they’re all similar.

Given the effort Facebook has put into its news feed algorithm, they certainly have the smarts to automate the identification and blocking of ads like this.

Whether it’s trending stories or deceptive ads, Facebook’s reputation for trust and balance is critical to its future success. The playground isn’t perfect, but we’ve come to expect some standards. If Facebook’s leaders are smart, they’ll enforce those standards on the ads, too. It’s not just fair to the readers — it’s better for the legitimate advertisers, as well.

To see one of these sites, click here — at your own risk.

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  1. As I’m not a sports fan, I haven’t seen the Payton ad. What I have seen are ads for clothing that are absolutely beautiful with exquisite details, and at a great price. The ads are from sites that generally take names of famous web sites and have a similar name. Women who order from them find that the clothes are poorly made and use cheap materials. When they try to send them back they find out that they need to be shipped back to China and that the shipping costs more than the item initially cost.

    After getting enough complaints, Facebook should stop accepting ads from these companies.

  2. oh geesh, I don’t even look at the ads. I figure they’re no better than what’s in the supermarket tabloids or the city free newspaper. And any ‘news,’ if I’m interested in the topic, I research it further, look for other sides to the story from other sources, to get a more dimensional picture.
    PS, I am subscribed, maybe there’s a way your website can recognize when a subscriber clicks over to your blog from your e-mail that you sent.

  3. I wonder how Facebook would react if someone stole their copyright and used it for deceptive marketing? It seems they are playing very casually with other media companies, and media celebrities brands in a way that is never tolerated in other ad channels

  4. Facebook could sue these companies if they post ads contrary to their clearly stated directives. These advertisers are gaining more than their fair share based on the dishonesty involved. Team up with ESPN and drive these crooks out of the legitimate world of hones comerse.

  5. Facebook has allowed misleading ads about Tom Brady using PED’s. The ads are from various vitamin or men’s health products. They claim that these testosterone boosters were taken by Tom Brady. They claim that you should buy their substances now before they are banned. They offer a free trial if you just pay shipping. Then, they use your charge card information to charge you $89 dollars per bottle. The supposed free trial bottles. It is also recurring. One company is Zentos LLC.
    Las Vegas, NV 89102

    Facebook should be responsible for the scam advertising on their website.

    1. My wife is trying to get a refund back from this so called “Zentos LLC” company for the past 3 months . they say is is sent and we do not see records in our checking account for it