Facebook Bars Advertisers from Altering News Headlines

Facebook on Thursday said it will stop allowing advertisers who promote news articles on the site to modify the headlines and descriptions that appear with them, a practice that some publishers say misrepresents their work.

The social network's change came after The Wall Street Journal contacted the company, pointing to examples of such ads.

In June, Facebook said it would prevent its users from modifying news article headlines, descriptions and images when posting links, as part of a broader push to crack down on the spread of false or misleading information.

But the change didn't apply to paying advertisers, who continued to have the ability to alter these "link previews" through Facebook's ad platform.

The Journal found examples of how marketers had used the tactic to subtly reposition press coverage about their companies or products. In many cases the changes didn't appear drastic, and the advertisers say they were meant to enhance clarity, not mislead readers.

But the changes were enough to make some publishers uncomfortable. It wasn't clear how widespread the practice was.

A recent ad for mattress company Casper linked to a Business Insider article using the headline "How Casper is Revolutionizing the Way We Sleep." But the Business Insider article the ad linked to carried the headline "I bought a bed from the Target-backed 'Warby Parker of mattresses' and I'll never buy one in stores again." It didn't say anything about Casper "revolutionizing" sleep.

Similarly, BuzzFeed published an article in 2016 about a toothbrush called Quip, with the headline "I Tried The Hipster Toothbrush That's All Over Facebook And TBH I Loved It".

Quip subsequently purchased Facebook ads linking to the BuzzFeed article, but edited the headline to remove the word "hipster" and "TBH", which is an acronym for "to be honest."

Some publishers say they're worried their content is being presented to consumers in ways they have no knowledge of and no control over.

"Our audience trusts and values our product reviews and editorial for their authenticity, so anything that violates the integrity of that content is concerning to us," a BuzzFeed spokesman said, adding that the company's legal department had contacted Quip to ask it to refrain from editing its headlines in Facebook ads in future.

Other advertisers besides Casper have also posted edited links to Business Insider articles in their Facebook ads in recent weeks. Business Insider declined to comment.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesman said advertisers will no longer be able to modify news headlines in this way. "While they should be able to edit links pointing to their own material, they shouldn't be able to edit headlines on stories they didn't create," the spokesman said. "Advertisers will still be able to edit headlines in links when they point to their own content, and we have strict policies in place that prohibit misleading ads."

Publishers will also continue to be able to modify the social headlines for their own articles.

For advertisers, editing link previews enabled them to position editorial coverage about their companies in the best light possible. It also allowed them to carefully optimize the wording of headlines for maximum impact as they typically would with most advertising they purchase.

A Casper spokeswoman said the company decided to alter the headline in the link preview because Business Insider's version didn't explicitly mention the Casper brand, and because it was truncated when it appeared in the news feed because of Facebook's character limits.

Shane Pittson, a growth marketer at Quip, said the company edited the BuzzFeed link preview for similar reasons. Without the ability to edit link previews it would be less willing to spend money on ads promoting publishers' content because those posts are often "unusable in their natural form," Mr. Pittson said.

Write to Jack Marshall at Jack.Marshall@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 14, 2017 14:04 ET (18:04 GMT)