The British Conservative Party doubled a number published by the BBC to make a Facebook ad look better – but was caught by fact-checkers

September 17, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

British fact-checkers caught the Conservative Party doubling the amount of money the government put into public schools in an ad it posted on Facebook last week. The case became viral and is an example of how many misleading stories can be found in the Facebook Ad Library.

On Sept. 3, the British Conservative Party posted an advertisement on its Facebook page claiming it was “giving schools a record £14 billion, levelling up per pupil funding across the country.” The ad showed a picture of a teacher in a classroom and a BBC logo on the left corner. But the real BBC story — linked in the ad — said the figure was £7.1 billion, far from that £14 billion figure.

The ad ran for six days and, according to public data available on Facebook’s Ad Library, it gathered more than 100,000 impressions (90% in England) and cost more than £500. Women between 35-44 were the group most exposed to that misleading headline in their NewsFeed.

On Sept. 9, the British fact-checking organization Full Fact spotted the falsity and wrote a detailed article about it. Full Fact alerted the Conservative Party and also the BBC, which also published an article about the case.

And the Conservative Party reacted. In a message sent to the BBC, a spokesperson claimed that “it was not our (the party’s) intention to misrepresent by using this headline copy with the news link, where the BBC’s (£7 billion) figure is clearly displayed, but we are reviewing how our advert headlines match accompanying links.”

The BBC issued a statement saying it is still “looking into this matter” and noted that the ad was suspended the day fact-checkers flagged it as false.

Full Fact’s team has publicly said it considers “inappropriate for political parties, or any public body, to misrepresent the work of independent journalists” the way the Conservative Party did on Facebook last week. Facebook hasn’t commented.

“The story was taken up around the world including by CBC, Der Spiegel and the New York Times. It’s a sign of how widespread the concern about unaccountable political advertising  online is,” said Full Fact’s CEO, Will Moy. “The rules need updating in many countries and need to be set through open transparent democratic processes, not in the terms and conditions of internet companies.”

Moy also told the International Fact-Checking Network that this was the first time his team looked into political ads on Facebook, something they will do more often from now on.

“We’re building up for the election, and monitoring online political adverts is a priority for us. The UK election law is dangerously out of date and we need to monitor if it is being exploited.”

The Facebook Ad Library was created to provide advertising transparency. Anyone, even those who don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account, can explore the Library and search the collection of all ads running across Facebook products. The library contains data on every active and inactive ad about social issues, elections or politics that’s run since May 2018. Facebook said it will keep them for seven years.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa, in Brazil. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.