How Flat Earthers Nearly Derailed a Space Photo Book

A highly engaged group of conspiracy theorists can override a fact-based endeavor’s internet ads.

This was a lesson that Benedict Redgrove, a photographer, said he took away from his recent attempt to advertise his space photo project on Facebook and Instagram.

Another lesson was that flat earthers and lunar landing deniers can be difficult to avoid, even when you try.

Nine years into his project photographing space artifacts for a self-published book and exhibit, Mr. Redgrove realized that he needed cash. The project involves photographing the artifacts and objects associated with space travel — the suits, the gloves, the helmets and the rubber stamps for imprinting astronauts’ names on their spacesuits.

It began as a passion project. Mr. Redgrove was born in May 1969 — just two months before the historic moon landing — and he attributes his early fixation on space to that. “My very first memory is looking at man on the moon on TV in a pram,” he said.

Getting permission from NASA to take pictures of these artifacts took him nearly five years. Even once he got it, there were logistical challenges, like figuring out how to make a spacesuit appear as if someone was in it. “They pressurized it for us so that it looked like it was occupied,” he said of the image that appears in the ad.

But after he had taken most of the pictures, he learned that there were more costs than he had expected. So he created a Kickstarter campaign. He had 30 days to raise $189,277. (The way Kickstarter works is that if you meet your goal through donations, you get your money. If you don’t, you get nothing.) To promote the effort, he bought a series of ads on Facebook and Instagram in the $200 to $400 range.

Mr. Redgrove had worked in advertising, photographing cars. But he had never placed an ad before. He learned that he could tell Facebook whom he did — and did not — want to reach. “We specified we didn’t want conspiracy theorists and lunar landing deniers and flat earthers,” he said.

About 24 hours after the ads were approved, he got a notification telling him the ad had been removed. He resubmitted it. It was accepted — and then removed again — 15 or 20 times, he said. The explanation given: He had run “misleading ads that resulted in high negative feedback.”

He understood that it was Facebook’s algorithm that rejected the ads, not a person. Getting additional answers proved difficult, a common complaint with advertising on Facebook. The best clues he could find came in the comments under the ads, which he and his colleagues captured in screenshots before they were removed and in responses to other posts about the project: There were phrases such as “The original moon landing was faking” and “It’s all a show,” along with memes mocking space technology. Some comments were hard to gauge, with users insisting that the earth was flat but that they’d buy the book anyway.

Mr. Redgrove didn’t entirely blame the commenters. If these were their beliefs, then of course they were going to be annoyed by the ads. But how these individuals had ended up with the power to derail his campaign perplexed him. “They don’t really have their systems in place to protect people,” Mr. Redgrove said of Facebook.

Facebook said that it could not immediately look into and comment on what had gone wrong in this particular situation.

The issues that emerge when advertisers target political campaigns or misinformation at a specific group on Facebook have been well documented. So, too, have the problems that arise when advertisers make Facebook users uncomfortable by knowing too much about them. The fact that social media recommendations sometimes encourage conspiracy theories and radicalization is also well known.

Facebook and other platforms have promised to address these issues. But Mr. Redgrove’s case seems to illustrate a relatively new twist in the narrative: Ads for a fact-based project seem to have been inhibited by offended conspiracy theorists.

After hiring a social media advertising specialist who knew how to reach someone at Facebook, Mr. Redgrove was able to resolve the situation.

The specialist, Richard Buckton of Rekrmend, said that he had run into a somewhat similar situation once before while advertising a “revolutionary backpack” in Hong Kong. “Revolutionary” was flagged for being politically inflammatory, he said.

An upside of all this, Mr. Redgrove said, was that when project supporters learned about the campaign to take down the ads, they took it upon themselves to advertise his project. With four days to go as of Wednesday morning, he was just $1,435 shy of his goal. “Flat earthers,’’ he said, “got us a bigger audience.”

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