Several high-profile Instagram accounts posted sponsored content for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign on Wednesday afternoon.
The posts do not make use of Instagram’s official system for disclosing that money has changed hands. The company has said that all creators posting sponsored content on behalf of presidential campaigns must use the official branded content tool. Branded content is a form of advertising.
Many of the accounts the Bloomberg campaign has advertised on are private, which means that followers must request to see the accounts and be approved by the account owners.
“Going private” is a known growth hack among meme pages. When a follower sends someone a post from that account, the receiver must request to follow the page to see it.
In 2018, many of Instagram’s top meme pages locked down their accounts to gain followers in this way. Meme pages often flip between private and public. Some use auto-accept programs to manage their flow of followers.
Large meme pages also set their accounts to private to avoid scrutiny, denying follow requests from journalists or from people they suspect may report the account for violating terms of service. After posting a Bloomberg ad on Wednesday, Funny Hood Vidz flipped its account from public to private, locking out journalists or others who sought to view the ad. (The account is now public again.)
The practice has become so widespread that it has become a pain point with users.
After Josh Constine, a reporter for TechCrunch, spurred a debate about the practice on Twitter on Tuesday, Adam Mosseri, the chief executive of Instagram, replied that “the current state is definitely not great, so we’re looking into a few ideas.”
“It’s not like we just noticed that large meme accounts often go private,” Mr. Mosseri wrote in another tweet. “You’ll probably think this is crazy, it just hasn’t bubbled up as the next most important thing to do, we’ve been more focused on Stories, Direct, creative tools, bullying, elections integrity, etc.”
But the scourge of private meme accounts is particularly thorny when it comes to political ads. When sponsored content for political candidates appears on private accounts, it allows those running the ads to escape the direct scrutiny that comes with a public-facing account.
It also keeps non-followers in the dark about ads being run on the page and prevents users from easily searching for specific content.
Liz Bourgeois, a spokeswoman for Facebook, which owns Instagram, wrote in a statement to The New York Times that the company does not “have visibility into financial relationships taking place off our platforms, which is why we’ve asked campaigns and creators to use our disclosure tools. On the broader topic of political branded content, we welcome clearer guidelines from regulators.”
The ads posted on Wednesday are just the latest in a campaign that has been orchestrated though Meme 2020, a collective of meme makers who run some of the largest and most influential meme pages on Instagram and have been contracted by the Bloomberg campaign. These meme pages operate as small media companies and make money by posting ads to their feeds.
For weeks, Facebook has been scrambling to respond to the Bloomberg campaign’s new social media tactics.
The company, which has spent years preparing for the 2020 presidential elections, has been caught off-guard by the Bloomberg campaign’s aggressive and unorthodox use of social media.
Facebook’s election team learned about the Bloomberg campaign’s plan to hire social media influencers through a report in The Times. On an internal message board used by the team, seen by The Times, the story was posted with a question: “Do we know about this?”
Immediately, according to a Facebook employee who was at a meeting about it, the group began to scour Facebook and Instagram for examples of influencers who had posted favorable Bloomberg content. With each post, the team checked to see if the photograph or video was clearly labeled sponsored by the Bloomberg campaign.
The posts they found were labeled. The group decided it would create an online database through CrowdTangle, a social media tool also owned by Facebook. The tool allowed them to catalog all posts by influencers that had been paid for by the Bloomberg campaign.
There was just one problem: Facebook’s team was relying on the influencers to label themselves.
The memers who created the first round of Bloomberg posts two weeks ago were asked by Facebook to retroactively label their posts through the official tool. However, many ads posted since then have not done so. Facebook is currently investigating how to crack down on these violations. So far, no meme accounts have been penalized.
The only disclosure on the Bloomberg advertisement posted to World Star Hip Hop read: “Verified #sPoNsoReD: bY @mIkEbLoOmbErg.”
By Taylor Lorenz and Sheera Frenkel