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Mohamed Malim’s company sells bracelets, beanies and other items made from recycled life jackets. The items are made by refugee workers, and about half the profits are donated to nonprofits that serve refugees.
So why doesn’t Facebook want his advertising?
Starting Nov. 4, the day after the presidential election, Facebook temporarily stopped running all ads about social issues, elections, or politics in the U.S. The banned topics Facebook lists on its website include civil and social rights, crime, the economy, education, environmental politics, guns, health, immigration, political values and governance, and security and foreign policy.
In some cases, posts on these topics are allowed, but only from “authorized” groups, and with a disclaimer. Facebook says the policy was imposed to clamp down on political disinformation. But in the process, nonprofit organizations and mission-based social enterprise businesses, including several based in Minnesota like Mohamed’s Epimonia, have been cut off. Mohamed says the impact on his business has been severe.
On its website, Facebook lists the phrase “We need immigration reform now!” as an example of a phrase that is allowed, as long as it’s posted by an “authorized’ user, and with a disclaimer. The phrase, “How can we better tackle climate change?” also requires a disclaimer and that the user be authorized.
A Somali American, Mohamed was a refugee himself. A graduate of the University of St. Thomas, where he studied marketing and entrepreneurship, Mohamed developed the concept for his business when he was a senior.
The apparel made by Epimonia comes from damaged life jackets discarded by refugees, according to the company website. Partnering with NGOs, who hire refugees to collect the used life jackets, Epimonia then hires refugees to upcycle the life jackets into bracelets, hats, and other items. Generally, Mohamed said, his company employs between two and four people. It currently has three employees who are refugees.
“Unfortunately, Facebook banned our advertisements on their platform,” Mohamed said. “They consider refugee advocacy political. We can’t generate any sales, or any money for refugees.”
Epimonia has been using Facebook ads for the past two years, and the new policy comes at a particularly bad time. The fourth quarter of the year is Epimonia’s biggest time of the year for sales. In past years, it has brought in $50,000 to $60,000. This year, sales are off 60-70 percent.
“We literally rely on Facebook and the majority of our sales come from there,” Mohamed said.
In an email to Epimonia that Mohamed shared with Sahan Journal, a Facebook representative said that the ads were not approved because of the “restriction period.”
“All issue, electoral and political ads in the US were temporarily stopped on Nov 4. You will be notified when this policy is lifted,” the email said.
“Facebook is considering these organizations political,” Mohamed said. “We are doing good in humanity. That’s the confusing part.”
In a response to an inquiry from Sahan Journal, Facebook provided a statement it attributed to a company spokesperson.
“We’ve had to make difficult decisions to protect the integrity of the election, which is why we have temporarily paused ads about social issues, politics or elections,” it said. “We know this may be disappointing, but we encourage businesses to run ads about other topics and reach people during this time through their organic posts and tools such as fundraisers on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses that believe their ads were flagged incorrectly can request an additional review.”
Lamah Bility, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, is the co-founder of Didómi, another company whose ads Facebook prevented from being published. Didomi, which launched as a company in July, sells water bottles, with a portion of the proceeds going to organizations that support clean water in developing countries.
An immigrant from Liberia, Lamah spent a number of his early years without a father in the house. As the “male of the house,” it was Lamah’s role to gather water each day. Lamah’s business partner, Anaa Jibicho, is a refugee from Ethiopia. “He lost two siblings to water-born illnesses,” Lamah said.
Lamah said that one Facebook ad Didómi put out used George Floyd’s name, and as a result, got flagged. The company took Floyd’s name out of the ad, but the ad is still pending.
A video the company created featuring Lamah and his co-founder’s story was prevented from running on Instagram, which Facebook owns. “One of our videos had to do with water prices,” Lamah said. ‘It had no political affiliation. We were trying to put a video out explaining the water crisis and why my co-founder and I started the company.”
The company has been able to sponsor a school in Kenya, helping supply clean water to 300 students, Lamah said. The ad ban makes it difficult to continue the work.
“Our cause is not a political cause, it is a humanitarian crisis that we should all be made aware of,” he said. “Nearly a billion people still live without access to clean, safe water. How can we help them when we aren’t seen?”
Sam Harper, co-founder of the non-immigrant-owned company Hippy Feet, based in Minneapolis, which employs homeless youth, said he does understand why Facebook took steps to fight misinformation, even if it has affected his own ad sales for his business.
“They have this important charge right now to fight misinformation to protect the integrity of the election,” Harper said. “They are very central to the current events and current issues going on. As a result, they have stepped up their enforcement policies.”
According to Harper, because Facebook has to moderate millions of people who could advertise each day, the company has to rely on algorithms. “The algorithm sees words like refugee or homelessness, and that just falls on a line of where we might be getting looped into highly politically motivated content.”
While businesses like his have been affected, Harper said he doesn’t feel as though they were targeted.