Hats, jewellery, coffee: The odd ads popping up on Facebook's 'political' list

Concept Cap adverts appear in Facebook's library for political ads Image copyright Facebook
Image caption At least 26 commercial adverts - like this one for a line of hats - have been spotted in Facebook's library for political ads

Dozens of adverts for hats, jewellery, clothing and other things with no apparent political message whatsoever have been added to Facebook's new library of UK political ads.

Last month, Facebook announced the creation of a database that lists UK political adverts on the platform along with the names of the people who paid for them.

At the moment, inclusion in the database is voluntary, but the company hopes to apply the rules to all political advertisers in the near future and require them to sign up.

The initiative came in response to political pressure the company has faced over allegations of data misuse by Cambridge Analytica and the role the social media giant played in the 2016 US presidential election and the UK's EU referendum.

Similar libraries are already available in the US and in Brazil.

Hats, beauty treatments, and jewellery

Among more than 1,200 UK ads listed in the database, BBC Trending spotted at least 26 that are for commercial companies and have no readily apparent political agenda.

They include a hat seller, a fashion boutique, a magazine, a coffee company, an online jewellery store, and others.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Adverts for an indie/folk gig appeared in Facebook's 'political' ad database...
Image copyright Facebook
Image caption ... along with ads for a coffee company, a jewellery company and beauty treatments

It's still unclear how these adverts ended up in the UK library, but similar non-political ads can also be spotted in the US and Brazilian databases.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Commercial non-political ads in Facebook's Brazilian database

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What exactly happened?

The ads, spotted by the BBC, indicate that Facebook does not have humans overseeing the library.

Facebook told BBC Trending it is investigating the matter and suggested that in some cases the advertisers themselves may have inadvertently flagged their adverts as "political" by failing to untick a box during the ad-buying process.

The UK company with most adverts listed in the database, hat seller Concept Cap, said that it was unaware its adverts had been dubbed "political" until it was contacted by the BBC.

"We were trying to set up product tagging on Instagram to help brand growth," a Concept Cap spokesperson said. Product tagging embeds keywords in posts, to make them more visible when users are searching for particular words and phrases.

"And to do that, you need to get verified by Facebook and send a form of ID, which we did", the spokesperson said. "After that, we got a message saying it was okay for us to post political and religious views."

Concept Cap said its hats and its adverts contained no political messages at all.

Transparency questions

A number of media reports in recent weeks have raised questions over how effective Facebook's new tools could actually be in making political advertising more transparent.

Last month, a Vice News journalist successfully applied to buy fake ads on behalf of all 100 sitting US Senators. Shortly after, a Business Insider reporter succeeded in publishing a fake advert purporting to have been paid by scandal-hit Cambridge Analytica.

Evidence given to the UK Parliament's inquiry into fake news has also identified what appears to be a large Brexit-backing advertising campaign run by an website called Mainstream Network.

Image copyright Mainstream Network
Image caption Mainstream Network's website has been online since late 2017

Campaign group 89up estimated that Mainstream Network spent up to £257,000 on adverts urging Facebook users to "bin Chequers".

It remains unclear who is behind Mainstream Network, and the page does not appear to have run any advertisements on Facebook since the new political advertising rules were announced on 16 October.

Facebook has refused to divulge any information about the people behind Mainstream Network's page and their new library does not include any political ads bought before their archive was unveiled.

More from BBC Trending

Meanwhile, legislators from eight countries have come together to call on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to give evidence before an "international grand committee" investigating disinformation and election meddling.

Blog by Marco Silva

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