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Facebook didn’t mark ads as ads for blind people for almost 2 years

a photograph of a Facebook error message
A Facebook error message is seen in this illustration photo of a computer screen in Singapore June 19, 2014. Facebook Inc’s website appeared to be back up on Thursday a few minutes after it displayed a message saying “Sorry, something went wrong”. The outage was reported in several countries, including China, Singapore and India. REUTERS/Thomas White (SINGAPORe – Tags: BUSINESS TELECOMS SOCIETY) – GM1EA6J1AY101
  • Jeremy B. Merrill
By Jeremy B. Merrill

Investigative reporter

Atlanta

For nearly two years, Facebook didn’t include a legible “Sponsored” label on ads for Facebook users who are blind or who have low vision.

That meant that anyone using a screen reader—software which reads the words on webpages out loud—couldn’t tell the difference between their friends’ posts and paid ads, which are visually indicated with a small “Sponsored” tag under the name of the advertiser. If you use a screen reader, what you would have heard is gibberish or “Sponsored” spelled out letter by letter.

A legal expert says that the mislabeled ads could cause Facebook some legal issues.

Sen. Ron Wyden pointed out the problem to Facebook in December. After that, and after Quartz asked Facebook about it last week, the problem was fixed.

The problem first appeared apparently as a result of one of Facebook’s salvos in its long-running war against ad blocker software, implemented around May 2018.

The ads used to be labeled in a way screen readers could understand. Before, the code for the label was simple. It was just a link that read “Sponsored.” But then Facebook made a big change to the the underlying HTML computer code for ads, adding additional intrusive letters in the label. So instead of “Sponsored,” the label essentially read, “Spspsononssososredredsss.”

For people reading the website visually, Facebook hid those extra letters using technological tricks, such as giving the extra text a font-size of zero.

But the JAWS screen reader application reads the intrusive letters, Chris Danielsen, who is blind and who is the director of public relations for the National Federation for the Blind confirmed last year. In his case, it sounded something like “Sp Sp S on on S so so S red red S S S” instead of “Sponsored.”

Later Facebook hid the “Sponsored” label’s text inside the page-styling instructions, which changed how the label was pronounced. In some cases, it was pronounced letter by letter. Screen readers aren’t set up for what amounts to asymmetrical warfare against Facebook’s frequent changes.

More recently, the “Sponsored” label on political Facebook ads didn’t include any tricks, so the garbled label only appeared on ordinary commercial ads—or political ads that were mischaracterized as non-political.

Solving the issue is as simple as removing the intrusive letters. “Having spent thousands of hours fixing these sorts of problems, this is an easy problem to fix,” said Sina Bahram, the president of Prime Access Consulting, which works to implement inclusive design practices which result in accessible products. Bahram is blind and uses a screen reader.

Facebook’s code tricks were likely aimed to thwart ad blockers or ad-transparency tools that aim to build a database of political ads on Facebook. Both kinds of tools need to detect ads as a first step; ad blockers hide the detected ads and ad transparency tools submit the ads to databases for journalists, academics, and watchdogs to analyze. That’s how I noticed this problem—I used to maintain a transparency project called the Facebook Political Ad Collector. Where before we looked for the word “Sponsored” to detect an ad (so only ads were submitted to our database), I had to build more and more complex detector code to distinguish ads from regular posts, thereby circumventing Facebook’s change. Ad blockers, too, were able to circumvent the changes.

“The only loser here is the screen reader user,” said Bahram.

“We work hard to make it possible for anyone, regardless of ability, to access our family of apps. We’ve recently fixed an issue with screen reader capabilities for ad labeling, and we’re appreciative to Quartz and others for bringing it to our attention,” Facebook spokesman Tom Channick said in a statement.

Screen reader users encounter numerous other problems browsing Facebook, Slate reported last year. Encountering all these accessibility issues with Facebook, including this one, “is a really deeply frustrating painful exclusionary and othering experience,” said Bahram.

“Americans with disabilities should not be an afterthought for tech companies. There is no justification for forcing them to spend extra time and effort to navigate past online ads,” said Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. And they should be able to easily learn why they were targeted by those ads, just like everyone else.”

It was also difficult for blind users to use Facebook’s “Why am I seeing this ad?” feature, excluding blind users from a feature that helps partially explain how an advertiser targeted that user to see any particular ad. Channick chalked this up to a bug and said it, too, had been fixed.

Facebook has been at war with ad blockers since at least 2016, when Andrew Bosworth, then the company’s VP of Ads & Business Platform, said in a blog post that Facebook’s ads were so “relevant,” “well-made,”  and “useful” that Bosworth wrote, “we’ll also begin showing ads on Facebook desktop for people who currently use ad blocking software”—in other words, overriding the user’s software with code tricks.

Not including legible labels on ads “certainly violates the spirit if not the letter of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] and raises questions about whether Facebook is engaging in deceptive practices under the FTC Act,” said Blake Reid, a law professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder who studies accessibility and technology law. “It sure would be nice if they could find a way to do what they’re trying to do with ad blockers without interfering with screen readers. It shows a failure to think thru, on the advertising side of things, what implications it’s going to have on accessibility,” he said.

The ADA requires “places of public accommodation” to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Courts have disagreed about how, exactly, that applies to websites. In October, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Domino’s, the pizza company, that had lost a lawsuit filed by a blind man who couldn’t order pizzas online.

Facebook does have a team of engineers working on accessibility issues; a recent New York Times op-ed praised Facebook for using facial recognition to automatically add captions to photographs, to help screen reader users hear who’s in a posted photograph.

Bahram praised that tool, but told Quartz that it wasn’t enough. “There are a hundred other things that are way less sexy that are far more substantive in terms of the impact that they would have on the user experience, especially of users of assistive technologies,” he said.

“When you have the amount of resources, reach, scale, impact that Facebook does, then we start arriving at a point of just core responsibility. They have that responsibility to make sure that everybody can use their platform especially when they clearly have the technical expertise, the financial resources, the time and human resources to make that happen.”

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