BEIRUT: On the eve of Syria’s first multicandidate presidential election, Facebook faced demands to donate the money it received for paid advertisements on its site from the government of President Bashar Assad.
The ads, which have now been taken down, are part of the “Sawa” (together) campaign by Assad’s office.
“It is an outrage that they took this money,” said James Sadri of the pro-opposition group The Syria Campaign. “Our main aim is to get Facebook to donate the money that they received to Syrians affected by the war.”
It is unclear how much money the social media firm received for the ads, which are thought to have run for at least 10 days.
“If they hold onto the money, they’re still profiting from Assad’s propaganda even if they’re no longer running the adverts,” Sadri said.
Unlike Facebook pages, which are free, advertisements on the site have to be vetted by a staff member, according to its own rules. Its site states that: “Both new and edited ads need to be reviewed.”
“This was no automated process,” Sadri said. “Each and every advert has to go through a human.”
“What we’d like to see is Facebook not playing an active role in spreading this propaganda,” he added, at a time when millions of Syrian civilians are displaced, whether inside or outside the country, at least 160,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands are missing.
A Facebook spokeswoman told The Daily Star, “The ads referenced are no longer on our platform. We terminated these ads. As always, we take down ads that violate our policies.”
“We comply with all relevant Syrian sanctions and do not permit ads originating from or targeting Syria,” she added.
Sources said that it was therefore likely the adverts originated outside of the country itself.
The Facebook page for the Sawa campaign is still up and has over 200,000 likes.
The Syria Campaign would also like to see it taken down.
Facebook pages that feature individuals or groups designated as terrorists by the U.S. or the EU governments are taken down, in line with the company’s policy.
“If Facebook would take down pages of terrorists, why would it actively support advertising for someone accused of war crimes?” Sadri asked.
Facing two other candidates, for the first time, Assad is widely expected to win Tuesday’s election, with a wide margin.