Two years ago, a handful of Facebook employees began to raise internal alarms about a series of advertisements appearing in their news feeds.

Purchased by a then up-and-coming lip-synching app known as TikTok — the ads featured teenage girls provocatively gyrating to music in short video clips.

Curious as to why he and his colleagues were seeing ads ostensibly meant for young girls, one Facebook employee, who was also a father, dug into the company’s advertising system at the time to determine what was going on?

What he discovered wasn’t an error, but Facebook’s advertising system working as intended. The social network’s algorithms had been optimizing the ads for the audience interacting with them the most: middle-aged men.

Initial complaints about the ads, which continued after Musical.ly was acquired and turned into TikTok, were rebuffed. TikTok, which reportedly spent $1 billion on advertising in 2018, was a valued business partner, one employee was told by higher-ups.

Another person in a position to know told BuzzFeed News that a Facebook manager’s response to the concerns was to restrict access to data about the ads’ targeting,

Facebook’s handling of TikTok’s ads is one of many examples of its advertising system run amok, and the company’s ongoing prioritization of revenue over the safety of its 3 billion users, the public good, and the integrity of its own platform.

The consequences vary: Consumers are sold goods they never receive or are lured into financial scams; legitimate advertisers’ accounts or pages are hacked and used to peddle those nonexistent goods or scams; credit card numbers are stolen.

But the end result is often the same: Facebook banks ad revenue, while its users get ripped off. A spokesperson for TikTok declined to comment? In its early days, monetization at Facebook was largely an afterthought.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was focused on growing usage of the platform. It wasn’t until two years after its 2004 founding that the company began building out its advertising business.

Zuckerberg accelerated that push into ads by hiring Sheryl Sandberg, then Google’s vice president for global online sales, as COO, in 2008. In the 12 years since, Facebook has grown from an upstart with less than $300 million in annual sales to a voracious ad behemoth with 10 million monthly active advertisers.

It’s really sad because in a lot of these scams people are getting fucked. Their livelihoods are affected. Some people who use Facebook have been financially devastated by romance and investment scams, as well as by fake products peddled on Facebook Marketplace.

A woman in Sweden who spoke with BuzzFeed News earlier this month lost her home and life savings after responding to a cryptocurrency investment ad she saw on Facebook.

Meanwhile, contractors on some teams have been told to ignore larger patterns of fraud and hacked accounts — unless they cost Facebook money. “When I can see an account has been hacked and I’m told to look the other way, it’s really shocking.

The problem is that Facebook’s incentive structure is that they have no incentive to be good actors,” said the former manager, who asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation.

Lots and lots of things slip through the cracks. Their ads fact-checking and policing are not staffed where they need to be. That’s left holes in ad enforcement for bad paid content that isn’t caught by Facebook’s automated systems.

After years of letting these scams run wild, Facebook recently implemented measures intended to make it harder for unreliable advertisers to quickly scale up their operations. Last year it introduced a $450 daily spend limit for new ad accounts in Asia.

Some advertisers have been avoiding the limits by creating multiple companies and multiple ads accounts, or using rented Facebook accounts to buy additional ads.

Vietnam has long been among the largest sources of fake ads and scams on Facebook. Many of these are purchased via hacked “business manager” accounts of marketing agencies and media buyers.

Since these accounts are typically used to run campaigns for multiple clients, malicious hackers can use them to run large numbers of ads before being shut down. This practice has been going on for years.

Facebook reportedly earned around $1 billion in revenue from Vietnam in 2018, though it’s unclear if that figure captured the amount of money spent by Vietnam-based people who buy ads using hacked accounts or stolen credit cards. The company declined to provide revenue figures for Vietnam or China.

The Vietnam-based clients who were banned by Facebook in June are now running the same kind of ads without issue by purchasing them through Facebook-affiliated agencies in China. So they didn’t get banned !

Sott.net / ABC Flash Point News 2020.

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