Positech Games has been unable to promote the Democracy franchise (soon to be expanded with Democracy 4) on Facebook thanks to a block on international political advertising according to a tweet from the company’s founder Cliff “Cliffski” Harris.

Democracy 4 was recently announced as the next game in the long-running strategy series where players try to manage a government while avoiding hurting their future election prospects, destroying the country, or getting assassinated. Jeff Sheen from Stargazy Studios will be leading development with Mr. Harris acting as a producer and lending his assistance for design and testing where needed.

Positech Games put an end to post-launch development on 2013’s Democracy 3 recently to focus on their next title. With a new game on the way, the company is still running advertising for the franchise but has encountered a particular problem with advertising on Facebook.

In May of 2018, Facebook implemented stricter rules for who can run political ads on their platform, The introduction of these stricter rules was largely in response to advertising surrounding American and world politics purchased by foreigners suspected to be influencing local politics. The new rules have already had a number of issues with American politicians reporting that they were unable to run political ads on Facebook due to false positives. According to a tweet from Mr. Harris, Positech Games has been similarly affected by these rule changes.

“This has been causing [me] anger and frustration for about a year,” Mr. Harris said in an e-mail conversation with TechRaptor. “I sleep safely at night knowing that [Russian bots] can still manipulate US [elections], but political strategy games that teach compromise and the principles of democracy are banned!” He supplied a preview of the style of ad he would try to submit that was rejected under these new rules after being falsely identified as a political ad:

democracy 3 facebook example political ad democracy 4

According to Cliff Harris of Positech Games, Facebook has blocked advertisements similar to this one for Democracy 3 because it’s a “political ad” being sent out internationally.

Although the rules surrounding political ads are new, Mr. Harris told me that he has had a number of troubles with advertising on Facebook. Advertisements that were running for months with no problem would be pulled and he would receive an automated e-mail about it, seemingly at random. Here is selected text of one such e-mail:

“We have reviewed your ad more closely and have determined it doesn’t comply with our Advertising Policies. This ad will not be active any longer until you edit it to comply with policy. You can click the ad name below to see why it wasn’t approved and make edits.”

A link included with the e-mail was not found to specify any policies that were breached and was completely unhelpful to Mr. Harris. Typically, he disputes these issues as they come up and they’ll be restored a few days later. He promotes his game in three languages in eight different countries, meaning that he will sometimes have to file 24 individual disputes when an issue like this crops up. Eventually, he’ll receive another automated e-mail with the following message:

Thank you for notifying us about your ad disapproval.

We’ve reviewed your ad again and have determined it complies with our policies. Your ad is now approved.

Your ad is now active and will start delivering soon. You can track your results in Facebook Ads Manager. “

Describing the situation as “chaos”, Mr. Harris expressed his frustration at the Facebook ads system continually pulling down his promotions and requiring him to file a dispute. He has found it “futile” to communicate with Facebook in any meaningful way about the issue, stating that they appear to “stick to pre-arranged canned lines” when responding to him.

“Occasionally I get a message in the ad manager warning me that I need to be verified as a US citizen to continue running ‘political ads on issues of national significance’,” Mr. Harris said. “Again, I’m just running that same ad, or ones with a slightly different picture. It seems like [Facebook] means well, but the ad-approval system is run by people who have no clue what they are doing.”

A May 2018 article from the Facebook newsroom details their policy surrounding political ads. A paragraph describes some exceptions to the criteria for these kinds of advertisements with examples:

Here’s how [Facebook’s political advertising policy] works in practice. Education is one issue listed among the 20. But our policy would only apply to those ads trying to achieve a political purpose, for example, education reform or a new student loan policy, not ads for a university or scholarship. Other cases are more nuanced. An ad from an immigration lawyer would not be tagged as an issue ad. But if essentially the same ad were to also advocate for immigration reform in any way, it would be considered political and be subject to our policy.

According to the above paragraph, ads that may be related to politically-charged issues but are not specifically advocating for those issues should be in the clear and should not fall afoul of this system. It’s reasonable to assume that these exceptions should also apply to the Democracy franchise, but Positech Games has nonetheless been caught up by this filter.

The post also states a commitment on the part of Facebook to doing their best to avoid false positives and improve over time, something that doesn’t seem to have happened here.

We won’t always get it right. We know we’ll miss some ads and in other cases we’ll identify some we shouldn’t. We’ll keep working on the process and improve as we go.

Mr. Harris stated that he finds most online advertising platforms to be just as bad, frequently relying on automation and rarely having actual people available to respond to queries. He estimates that he has redirected tens of thousands of dollars from his advertising budget from one site to another due to issues with these systems and an inability to get them resolved.

“On a wider issue [it’s] worrying that policies supposedly designed to keep the platform free from political influence are so incredibly dumb. I’m clearly advertising a video game, not specifically at the US (I target loads of countries in loads of languages), and meanwhile all kinds of incredibly partisan news services can peddle massively influential fake news, all because the guy with the credit card is a US citizen?

It would be funny if it was not so worrying.” – Cliff “Cliffski” Harris, Founder of Positech Games

Ultimately, Cliff isn’t all that concerned about the difficulties with advertising on Facebook. He’s perfectly happy to give his money to Twitter and Reddit instead, both places where he intends to focus a portion of his marketing budget for Democracy 4. “Frankly Democracy 3 sold really well and is well known, and not being able to advertise on a single platform doesn’t bother me,” he said. “What does bother me is nobody is really looking into how bad these systems are.”

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this article if we get a response from them. Democracy 4 will be releasing sometime in 2019. If you’re keen on trying out Democracy 3, you can pick it up for yourself on Steam, the Humble Store, or GOG for $24.99 or your regional equivalent.

Disclosure: GOG and Humble Bundle work with TechRaptor for affiliate partnership, and TechRaptor earns a small commission off purchases made from links in this article. In addition, GOG provides a monthly giveaway to our Pack Hunter members.

What do you think of Facebook blocking ads for Democracy 4?

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Robert N. Adams

Senior Writer

I've had a controller in my hand since I was 4 and I haven't stopped gaming since. CCGs, Tabletop Games, Pen & Paper RPGs - I've tried a whole bunch of stuff over the years and I'm always looking to try more!