Martin Lewis: Suing Facebook left me shaking - it’s now admitted 1,000s of fake ads, here’s the latest
Last Monday, I was shaking when I arrived home. That morning, in a personal capacity, I’d issued High Court proceedings for a campaigning defamation lawsuit against Facebook – my aim to stop it publishing scam ads for get-rich-quick schemes, such as those that include my face, which target vulnerable people.
Coverage of the lawsuit led every news bulletin that morning, was on the front of The Times and Metro, and loud and large in every paper. I did interviews on every major UK channel, and many abroad. The story had exploded, and left me nervous.
Please read my Why I’m suing Facebook over fake ads blog for the background.
One step in winning this case is proving that Facebook is a publisher, at least of its adverts. And many comment pieces, especially Stateside, see this as the sharpest knife to cut the firm down to size, eg, Facebook being sued in UK more intelligently than anything the Senate has contemplated.
Except, my aim isn’t to go to court. It’s to stop Facebook publishing scam ads, and if it comes up with a system that will do that – I’d hope we could settle. These comment pieces have upped the ante though, so I now feel that, even if I do get the anti-scam victory I set out to, many will be annoyed I didn’t go the whole hog to prove it’s a publisher.
And indeed, after being exhausted by a barrage of continuous interviews on Monday, my anxiety came from the realisation of quite how high I’d put my head above the international parapet. With that said, I’m still determined to carry on. And, as I’ve been swamped with questions, I thought I’d bash out a quick FAQ here....
Q. Is there a court date set? As the proceedings are technically against Facebook Ireland (due to its complex structure), it has three and a half weeks to make its initial response to our summons (it’d be two weeks if it was a UK firm).
After that this could be a long process, depending on the nature of the response. So don’t hold your breath.
Q. I saw you on TV – what got you so angry? For over a year scam ads with my name and image in have been rife on Facebook. I’d counted at least 50, though as you’ll read below, it’s admitted it’s actually thousands. We’d tried to contact the social media behemoth, to ask it to stop publishing them, but its response (or lack of it) was, in my view, appallingly negligent and uncaring.
So in the end I resorted to hiring lawyers, to stop my reputation being destroyed by people thinking I endorsed those products. Many who’ve been scammed paid out because they trusted me – and some of whom, sadly, feel I scammed them. I’ve spent my whole career trying to do the opposite. So no surprise I’m furious.
My specific aim though, is to stop scam ads that falsely use many people in the public eye to dupe the vulnerable out of £1,000s – any money I’m paid will go to anti-scam charities.
Q. How many adverts have there been? In my original press statement, I said that, as a very conservative estimate, there have been over 50 adverts over the past year. (Privately, I thought over 100, but was worried it’d be tough to prove.) I explained how when I did report them, if they eventually took them down, then almost immediately more were republished.
However last week, while watching the Facebook Chief Technology Officer (CTO) giving evidence to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee (watch Facebook’s evidence here) he said that since I’d announced the lawsuit, it’d used technical tools to remove “THOUSANDS” of fake adverts for scams featuring me.
That gives me the creeps. Yet it also proves that Facebook was always able to remove the vast bulk of ads proactively if it wanted to. However, it only did it once I threatened court action. How many vulnerable people have lost out due to its negligence meanwhile?
Here's a sample of the type of FAKE ads that have been published...
Q. Facebook says you should report the ads, what’s wrong with that? The scammers have run a systemic, near continuous, year-long attack on my reputation and attempt to defraud. Facebook is being paid to publish these scam ads, not me. It takes the cash so should take the responsibility – it needs to proactively stop these ads.
The fact Facebook in its initial response to my lawsuit tried to push the onus on to me to report, saying “we’ve explained to Mr Lewis how to report these ads” is risible.
Even if I had the huge time and resource it would take to do this, actually reporting these ads is impossible, as I explained in my brief statement after Facebook’s CTO’s appearance in parliament…
“It is creepy to hear that there have been thousands of adverts. This makes a farce of Facebook's suggestion earlier this week that to get it to take down fake ads, I have to report them to it.
"Facebook allows advertisers to use what is called 'dark ads' – targeted only at set individuals and not shown in a timeline.
"That means I have no way of knowing about them. I never get to hear about them. So how on earth could I report them? It is not my job to police Facebook. It is Facebook’s job - it is the one being paid to publish scams.
"The fact that it now says it has just done a purge of these ads doesn’t change anything. I’ve been very plain that this is a campaigning law suit aimed at stopping vulnerable people being scammed by fake ads. A one-off cleansing, only of ads with my name in, isn't good enough. It needs to change its whole system."
Q. Has Facebook responded to your call to meet it? We’ve got somewhere. The key for me is to talk to someone senior enough and give them the opportunity to do something about these scam ads.
After a bit of discussion I have agreed to meet (alongside my lawyer) Facebook’s Vice President for Northern Europe, Steve Hatch and team on 16 May to start the discussion and set out what my asks from it is. If it can’t deliver that, I will continue to go to court.
Q. What is your aim – is it to take Facebook down? No I’ve been very specific, this is about stopping Facebook being paid to promote scam ads.
If Facebook comes up with a solution that will proactively stop itself from publishing fake ads – not just for me, but for others like Deborah Meaden, Peter Jones, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and others – then I would be delighted to settle the case. (Costs and some damages to those who’ve been scammed would be good too.)
This isn’t about me getting my day in court, it’s about protecting vulnerable people from scammers.
Q. Is it true you’ve tattooed your forehead? A few people who have asked me this (not in person, obviously). No it’s not true, but…
I spent a day on virtually every major news bulletin on TV, radio and in the newspapers saying: “I don’t do ads. Any advert with me in is a scam.”
Yet I was still getting people sending me adverts and saying “I saw you on the news, is this one a scam?” So for fun we mocked up this image – which is now my profile pic on Facebook and twitter.
Q. Why sue Facebook not the scammers? Detecting who the scammers are isn’t easy. As this Times of Israel story on my lawsuit shows, they are nimble and move location. Frankly, even if I did know who they were, I’ve no idea how to stop them.
The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) can’t touch them, as it was only set up to cope with normal brands playing fast and loose, not criminal scammers outside the UK. It can’t rule on a firm that won’t reply to it – and no surprise the scammers simply ignore it. Nor can it rule against publishers, such as Facebook.
I’ve reported the ads to the police, Action Fraud and the financial regulator, the FCA. They have all warned against them, but that isn’t stopping it.
So instead my aim is to try to deny them their prime route to market – and that’s what Facebook has been giving them. It is being paid by these scammers to run ads. An ethical company wouldn’t touch their money – and stopping them after the ad appears is too late. I want to stop people losing money, not force them to chase it around the world after they’ve already lost it.
Q. Facebook isn’t the only one doing this – will you sue the others too? Suing Facebook was my last resort. After a year of paltry communication from it and consistent, repeated, unstoppable ads reaching a huge mass audience, I felt I had no choice but to go legal on its backside.
However, most other organisations have agreed to aim to be proactive in stopping ads. Many came up on Google’s platforms last week on the back of the court case, and it tells me it has stopped them already.
Some came up on advertising platforms such as Taboola (which had previously agreed to stop them and was apologetic about them rerunning) and it has renewed its effort.
Thankfully I think the threat of legal action has focused other agencies’ minds on the importance of stopping fake ads. I am watching.
I am prepared to accept that ‘stuff’ happens, and once in a while a scammer will find a new way round the blocks. If that happens and the agencies act swiftly and aim to stop it with a matter of urgency – fair enough. Yet it is the consistent, repeated nature of those on Facebook, and what I feel is its careless lackadaisical response, putting the onus on me that made me go further.
Yet if others show similar negligence, then I will have to instruct lawyers there too.
Q. I heard that you’re doing a class action with other celebrities – is that true? No. There are no class actions in libel. And while Duncan Bannatyne has kindly said he supports what I’m doing, that’s as far as it has gone.
Yet I would be delighted for others who have similar issues (and there are many) to follow on and take up the cudgels. And, indeed, if that happened the court may well group the cases together.
However, I will keep my case as an individual one. Others may want to keep any damages paid, and may have different motivations, such as prioritising reputation protection over an anti-scam system - and I don't want to get into a position of needing to negotiate a consensus before we do anything. Plus I think it best for multiple arrows to be flying, rather than them all put into one quiver and just chucking that.
However, it would also be very helpful if you’re report them to the email address fakead AT moneysavingexpert.com – preferably including:
i) What platform you saw it on
ii) The date
iii) If possible, a screengrab
iv) If possible, a direct link (right click on the ad and copy the direct link)
Then we can add it to our list on which to take action.
Q2134 Chair: You have probably been aware since you have been in the UK of the issues raised by Martin Lewis about the use of his image and profile by fraudsters seeking to scam people into investing in schemes that they falsely claim he has endorsed. Have you seen anything on that?
Mike Schroepfer: I have seen news report on it, yes.
Q2135 Chair: He makes two points I want to ask you about, which I think are quite important. First, it is often beholden on him as an individual to complain to Facebook about the adverts but if they are not being served to him, certainly if they are being posted as dark ads, how can someone complain about an ad that they can’t see?
Mike Schroepfer: You have raised a couple of issues there and I think they are critical, so I am going to take each of them. The first is the core issue of fraudulent ads is a problem and it is not welcome on our platform, whether it is this case or others. We have both manual and automated systems to try to detect these systems, but these are people who are financially motivated to try to evade whatever systems we have in place. We use things to classify these ads in a certain way. They will abbreviate the name, so instead of Martin Lewis they will say M Lewis or they will misspell the name slightly such that even when we put in technical measures they will work around it. They keep running ads and they will get blocked and blocked until they figure out they can get one. This is a place where taking down the actor is often the most important thing.
In the case of Mr Lewis, he reported in the order of 50 ads to us. As a result of that we did a more extensive investigation using our technical tools, found thousands of other ads that were a problem, and took all of those down proactively. More importantly, we found the dozens of actors, people who are fraudulently advertising on the platform and took them off the platform. That obviously takes everything they have advertised and prevents them from advertising in the future. I think that is the important thing.
The second issue you raised is also an important one, again about transparency: how does he see these things? This is where in June you will basically be able to see every running ad on the platform. I want to highlight that I think we are trying to catch all of these things proactively. I do not want the onus to be put on people to go and find these things and people reporting. We are trying to get to a mode over time, particularly with technical systems, that can catch this stuff upfront. We want to get to a mode where people reporting bad content of any kind is the sort of defence of last resort and that the vast majority of this stuff is caught upfront by automated systems. I know that is true of authentic accounts, bad content on the platform; 90%-plus of nudity on the platform is flagged and removed by automated systems before any human ever sees it, which was not true five years because we did not have the technical capability. That is the future that I am personally spending my time trying to get us to so that people like Mr Lewis don’t have to spend time doing it because our systems do it for him.
Q2136 Chair: But Mr Lewis said he does not advertise himself. He does not use any adverts that have his image in. Why doesn’t Facebook use the facial recognition technology it already has to identify ads posted by fraudsters using his image to prevent them going up?
Mike Schroepfer: The first thing is that we have not had facial recognition enabled in the EU until just recently. It was not even a feature we could offer to our users, so we are just in the process of rolling that out, so we need to do that first to make sure we can offer that feature for consumers. We are investigating ways to do that. It is challenging to do technically at scale and it is one of the things I am hopeful for in the future that would catch more of these things automatically. Usually what we end up doing is a series of different features would figure out that these ads are bad, so it is not the picture, it is the wording. We will catch classes of ads and say we are pretty sure this is a financial ads and maybe financial ads we should take a little bit more scrutiny on upfront because there is the risk for fraud. This is why, for example, we took a hard look at the hype going around cryptocurrencies and decided that when we started looking at the ads being run there the vast majority of those were not good ads. We just banned the entire category and said, “You can’t run cryptocurrency ads because we think the likely harm to the consumer is high there”. When we can do things like that, combined with catching the actors—because this is ultimately a person who is running a fraudulent ad and get them off the platform—that is the really effective long-term defence of these things.
Q2137 Chair: You can run facial recognition at scale, clearly, as a business?
Mike Schroepfer: I am happy to dive into the details on this. I am not sure we have the systems yet to be able to do that, running this across 2 billion people for every single ad that is uploaded, to figure out—
Q2138 Chair: But you are running facial recognition across 2 billion users for their pictures and things. The idea is that you have facial recognition software and you could automatically tag on their pictures unless they have opted out of that.
Mike Schroepfer: The challenge here, and forgive me if I go into some detail, is that when any of these systems happen and you are trying to match, there is this ad running, is this particular—does it match, the larger the search space you use if you are looking across a large set of people, the more likely you will have a false positive, that two people tend to look the same and you will not be able to make automated decisions that said this is for sure this person. This is why I say that it may be one of the tools but usually what ends up happening is a portfolio of tools. Maybe it is something about the image, maybe the fact that it has Lewis in the name, maybe the fact that it is a financial ad, wording that is consistent with financial ads, and we tend to use a basket of features in this in order to detect these things. You are right, the thrust of this is that we are working hard to provide more technical means that move this from reactive to proactive, which means we catch this stuff at creation time and it does not run on the platform and harm a consumer, which is the most important thing, and it does not put work on anyone else to go and chase these things down.
Chair: My concern over this section we have just discussed is that a lot of the tools do seem to work for the advertiser more than work for the consumer.
And hopefully all that brings you up to speed. Thanks so much to the 1,000s of people in the UK and around the world who have supported me so far in this campaign. And to the many people who have sent fake ads.
I want this to be the start of reining in the Wild West world of online advertising, so that it is more responsible. I will blog major updates here, and put smaller ones on my Twitter and of course my Facebook pages.