Ban Hasn't Stopped COVID-19 Instagram Ads

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Adverts and listings that capitalize on the COVID-19 outbreak are appearing on Instagram and Facebook despite being banned.

On March 6, Facebook and Instagram announced a temporary ban on ads and listings selling medical face masks on its marketplace. On March 19, Rob Leathern, head of trust and integrity for Facebook ads and business platform, extended the ban to include hand sanitizers, coronavirus testing kits, disinfecting wipes, and several other products.

Tenable's Satnam Narang has observed a growing number of adverts for COVID-19 essentials since the ban was issued.

"Despite the ban, advertisements continue to appear on Facebook and Instagram, some as recently as March 26," said Narang. 

"I began observing an uptick in activity in my Instagram Feed on Friday, March 20. All of a sudden, every single sponsored post in my Instagram Feed had something to do with masks, whether it be N95 masks, surgical masks or face shields."

Advertisers have carefully moderated the language they use in their ads in a slippery attempt to get around the ban.

"Many of the advertisements don’t overtly reference COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus that causes it in their posts," said Narang. "They do, however, talk about protecting oneself from 'harmful particles' and how to 'stay protected at all times' while referencing N95 masks or harmful viruses and bacteria, implying a connection to COVID-19."

Narang observed carefully worded ads appearing in his Instagram feed and showing up in his Instagram stories. Some were native to Instagram, but others originated from Facebook advertisers, including duamaskcom and Plengoods.

Alongside Facebook pages and Instagram accounts created recently for the sole purpose of promoting COVID-19-related items like N95 masks, Narang observed opportunists compromising the accounts of existing pages in order to advertise their products. 

"The Facebook Page for a Greek restaurant in Zimbabwe was compromised and used to push an advertisement for surgical masks to Instagram. The page does not appear to have been maintained since 2008," said Narang. 

But the crappy behavior of the few has not caused Narang to lose his faith in humanity. 

He told Infosecurity Magazine: "It’s certainly disheartening to see opportunists trying to profit from this crisis, but I’ve definitely seen a lot of kindness that gives me hope: People within communities volunteering to pick up groceries for the elderly, high-risk individuals creating blueprints to 3D print masks and other personal protective equipment, folks brokering deals to secure N95 masks for frontline workers, and retired medical professionals coming out of retirement to help out on the front line."

Narang urged users of these platforms to "help by reporting these ads using the built-in reporting functionality on social media services."

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