Across the country, Chabads report that ads for a course on antisemitism, many featuring variations on this promotional art, were rejected by Facebook.
Across the country, Chabads report that ads for a course on antisemitism, many featuring variations on this promotional art, were rejected by Facebook.

‘Collateral damage’: Why is Facebook rejecting ads for Chabad antisemitism course?

Updated Nov. 8 with additional comments from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Rabbi Yochanan Friedman, eager to attract more participants in the Santa Cruz area to the course he’s teaching called “Outsmarting Antisemitism,” logged into his Chabad by the Sea Facebook page to post a paid ad about the course. Several hours later, he received a notification from Facebook. His ad had been rejected.

Friedman is not alone. In recent weeks, more than 50 Chabad rabbis from across the country, including at least three in the Bay Area, have experienced the same rejection. The four-part course, which focuses on the history of antisemitism and strategies to overcome it, was developed by Rabbi Zalman Abraham, marketing director at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch initiative. Starting this week, it is being taught by rabbis nationwide.

Facebook allowed nearly identical posts about the course to appear on Chabad Facebook pages and on rabbis’ personal accounts. Some rabbis created Facebook events to promote the course as well. Only the paid ads, meant to reach a broader audience, faced rejection.

“This is supposed to be a way to heal communities and heal the wounds of years and years and generations of discord,” Friedman said. “Preventing people from being informed about this course [through advertisements] seems to be the opposite of what Facebook’s policies theoretically should be about.”

The ads fall into the Facebook advertising category of “social issues, elections, or politics,” according to Devon Kearns, a Facebook spokesperson. Most reportedly were rejected because they did not disclose who was paying for the ad, a protocol Facebook has required since 2018, in order to improve transparency and curb foreign entities and bad actors from influencing elections and sowing disinformation.

After the rabbis’ ads were rejected, Facebook provided notification along with a checklist of specific steps to get their ads properly authorized, such as providing photo identification, Chabad’s tax ID number and a disclaimer about who paid for the ad.

A screenshot shared with J. by one of several Chabads interviewed for this article shows some of the issues flagged by Facebook when trying to post ads for the Outsmarting Antisemitism course.
A screenshot shared with J. by one of several Chabads interviewed for this article shows some of the issues flagged by Facebook when trying to post ads for the Outsmarting Antisemitism course.

Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson followed these steps, ran into technical roadblocks and said he ultimately called Facebook’s marketing team on the phone. He said one specialist, unsure how to resolve the issue, connected him with a second one.

“They themselves were not sure how to proceed,” Ceitlin said, calling the predicament a “Catch-22” because his ad fell into a category deemed political even though his organization, Chabad, did not belong there. “It just went in circles,” he said.

Rejected Facebook ads come with an option to appeal the decision. Kearns explained that in the instance where a social-issue ad did not fulfill the disclosure requirements, appealing would not change the outcome, though “we regularly take feedback and evolve our policies,” she said.

“They say that these policies are meant to protect people, and in reality, there’s collateral damage, so to speak, where good information is getting blocked,” Friedman said.

The Anti-Defamation League called these experiences “a prime example of the need for greater transparency from large social media platforms,” Seth Brysk, ADL Central Pacific regional director, said in an email. “Accordingly, ADL is working hard to pass AB 587, California’s Social Media Transparency Act, to ensure that big tech shares with the public what they view as violations and how they enforce their policy.”

The problem, unfortunately, is “tremendously common,” according to David Greene, senior staff attorney and civil liberties director at San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, the international nonprofit digital rights group.

“The context of the content seems to not have been considered,” Greene said, noting that human rights groups have run into similar problems when trying to expose documented cases of torture and war crimes.

We lost a critically important opportunity to educate the public in the moment.

Educational Facebook ads about the Holocaust repeatedly “hit a brick wall,” according to Michelle Tycher Stein, chief marketing and communications officer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Last month, the museum paid for an ad on its Facebook page to promote a Facebook Live program about the history of Nazi crimes against disabled individuals. The ad ran for several days, but was later rejected. It too had fallen into the Facebook category of ads about social issues, elections or politics. It required a political disclaimer, and was then able to continue running. Stein said other ads about Holocaust education have been rejected for containing “dangerous or derogatory content.” Sometimes after the museum appeals the decision, the ad will run. But ultimately, she says, it’s a guessing game.

“What’s hard is the total inconsistency of when these things are and aren’t blocked. When we’re boosting or promoting a video, and it’s rejected on YouTube or Facebook, we have no idea why,” Stein said.

The museum has taken to creating backup ads, “so that if something is denied, we have something that we think might be able to be published,” Stein said.

Screenshot of the rejected museum ad
Screenshot of the rejected museum ad

The museum averages 15 million engagements on Facebook, with people commenting and sharing the educational content, reaching close to half a million people a day. Stein says half of that reach comes from paid advertising.

This past spring, social media posts comparing Covid-19 vaccination status to Holocaust-era Jews wearing gold stars on their clothing circulated around the internet. Stein’s team prepared a Facebook ad to share information about the history of the gold stars. Time was of the essence, but the ad was stuck in a Facebook appeal process. It never ran.

“Our ability to put the history around that iconic symbol out there was blocked. We lost a critically important opportunity to educate the public in the moment,” Stein said.

For Chabad rabbis, spreading the word about “Outsmarting Antisemitism” was also time-sensitive.

Ceitlin is now instructing approximately 30 students, some on Zoom and others in the classroom.

“What I’m disappointed by, is after they were notified that this course is not about stoking hate or fear … after they heard what the nature of the course is about,” Ceitlin said, “why did [Facebook] not stand up and say this is something we should be supporting?”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for KTVU Fox 2 News. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.