Policies preventing Facebook users from selling animals and animal products on the platform have presented a challenge to livestock producers looking for ways to market their products to consumers.
According to Facebook’s commerce policies, listings on the site “may not promote the buying and selling of animals or animal products.” Farmers who try may have trouble getting their posts past Facebook’s review process and, even if they do, their posts could still be taken down.
“Failure to comply may result in a variety of consequences, including, but not limited to, removal of listings and other content, rejection of product tags, or suspension or termination of access to any or all Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp commerce surfaces or features,” an overview of Facebook’s commerce policies states.
The prohibited items include medicines, medical devices, veterinary services, animal parts, products from animals intended for consumption and live animals including livestock and pets. Rick McNary — who created a Facebook group, Shop Kansas Farms, to help connect farmers to consumers who were looking for food during the pandemic — said it has even applied to posts that have photos of eggs.
McNary said as the Facebook group developed, producers started to notice some of their posts selling animals or meat were being blocked. Right away, some of them thought it might be McNary not approving their posts as the group moderator, but he’d tell them it wasn’t. He said some of the posts didn’t even make it to him for the approval process.
“Some of them get really frustrated,” he said during the recent Ag Outlook Forum sponsored by the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City and Agri-Pulse. . “They've learned it's not us.”
A Facebook spokesperson said all posts listed on the platform’s Marketplace and Buy and Sell Groups must comply with the Community Standards and Commerce Policies and may not promote the buying or selling of animals.
“As we strive to protect the welfare of animals against illicit trades, we cannot always ensure their safety in a peer-to-peer transaction,” the spokesperson told Agri-Pulse in an email. “Outside of our commerce surfaces, we allow such sales if posted by brick-and-mortar entities, animal rehoming, and adoption agencies and shelters.”
The spokesperson said listings on the platform's Marketplace are put through an “extensive review” conducted by both people and technology.
Deborah Niemann, an Illinois producer who sells lamb, goat and pork meat, has been using Facebook since 2006. She said in a Facebook group centered around wool that she used to manage, people would complain about having their posts taken down.
However, she said most of these producers referred to the breed of sheep without stating “wool,” which made it sound like they were selling the sheep themselves. For example, producers selling wool from Shetland lambs would just say “I have Shetland for sale.”
“If you say ‘I have Shetland for sale’, the dumb bot thinks you're talking about a Shetland sheep, a Shetland pony, a Shetland cow, a Shetland sheepdog — you're talking about an animal, not wool,” she said. “Because ... normal people don't say that. That's the way fiber enthusiasts talk.”
Wes King, a senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said he worries these policies will make it difficult for small producers, some of whom are struggling to access markets, to pursue direct-to-consumer options.
“The impact, to me, likely has a disparate negative impact on small farmers, direct-to-consumer farmers and small businesses in general,” King said.
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However, Niemann said there are ways producers have been able to get past Facebook’s algorithms, comparing them to Amelia Bedelia — a children’s book character known for taking phrases extremely literally. For example, producers could say that they are “taking sheep to the locker,” and Facebook’s algorithms likely wouldn’t flag any of the keywords.
“The computer thinks that ‘locker’ is something that you have in a high school or a stadium or something,” she said. “The computer's not going to read that as you're trying to sell an animal.”
Niemann has noticed a lot of creative keywords producers use to skirt the rules. For instance, in a lot of sheep groups, she’s noticed people posting about “lawn mowers” for sale. These “mowers” are actually sheep, but Facebook’s detection technology doesn’t understand that.
“It's about getting to know people and understanding that it is not at all personal, you're talking to Amelia Bedelia in a computer,” she said. “And you just have to use words that that computer's not going to view as an animal product or an animal.”
McNary also has noticed ways producers could get their posts past the algorithms. On the Shop Kansas Farms page rules, he told people in the group not to post photos of live animals. If producers had their posts taken down, he would tell them to try again, but remove the words “meat,” “beef,” and “sell.” He said after that, most of the posts went through.
Additionally, McNary has expanded beyond the Facebook group by creating a website for Shop Kansas Farms. He said this has helped give producers another avenue for finding consumers to buy their products.
“What we're looking for too, in the future, is figuring out ways to help farmers sell better,” McNary said.
King, the senior policy specialist at NSAC, said he’d like to see Facebook figure out a way producers can market their products while addressing the platform’s concerns.
“I think it would be a good thing to see Facebook work with producers, work with people who are doing this kind of direct-to-consumer marketing to figure out what's a system that allows them to be the entrepreneurs they are, while also addressing whatever reasons or concerns that Facebook had to create the policy in the first place,” he said.
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