In October, Facebook made the controversial decision to exempt most political ads from fact-checking. The announcement met with a swift backlash, particularly among leading Democratic candidates for president in the USA. As criticism mounted, Facebook began to hint that it would further refine its policy to address lawmakers’ concerns. One change that seemed likely was to limit the ability of candidates to use the company’s sophisticated targeting tools, particularly after hundreds of employees wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking for it.
On Thursday, Facebook unveiled the refinements to its policy that it had been promising. But restrictions on targeting were nowhere to be found. Instead, the company doubled down on its current policy, and said the only major change in 2020 would be to allow users to see “fewer” ads. (Fewer than what? It didn’t say.) Here’s Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management for ads, in the blog post:
The move is rooted in ideas of personal responsibility — if you want to see fewer political ads and remove yourself from campaigns, that’s on you. In practice, though, it seems unlikely that many Facebook users would take advantage of the semi-opt-out, which is due to be released sometime before April. When’s the last time you visited your ad preferences dashboard?
There has been much debate in recent months about political advertising online and the different approaches that companies have chosen to take. While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads. […]
We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position. We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections.
Meanwhile, misleading political ads will continue to go viral, prompting a fresh news cycle whenever a candidate’s lie crosses a few hundreds thousand impressions. In each case, calls for Facebook to revisit its policies will be renewed, and the beleaguered PR team will dig up old quotes from Leathern’s post and email them to reporters by way of explanation.
And make no mistake: Facebook executives already know all this, and have decided that it beats the alternative. The company is committing to 11 full months of getting kicked in the teeth. It may well be the company’s smartest move politically. But it would seem to augur very poorly for our politics.
Google, the digital ads leader, is limiting political-ad targeting to broad categories such as sex, age and postal code.
Twitter is responsible for the pressure piling on Facebook.
Social network’s move comes as Facebook faces controversy over ads that promote misinformation
Twitter will ban all political advertising, the company’s CEO has announced, in a move that will increase pressure on Facebook over its controversial stance to allow politicians to advertise false statements.
The new policy, announced via Jack Dorsey’s (co-founder and CEO of Twitter) Twitter account on Wednesday, will come into effect on 22 November and will apply globally to all electioneering ads, as well as ads related to political issues. The timing means the ban will be in place in time for the UK snap election.
Twitter had previously implemented rules and restrictions for political advertising.
The announcement comes as Facebook is embroiled in a controversy over its decision to exempt ads by politicians from third-party factchecking and from a policy that bans false statements from paid advertisements.
The organic spread of political messages online “should not be compromised by money”, he wrote. The advanced state of digital advertising technology, including “machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting” and deepfakes – fake or manipulated videos that appear real – combined with the pollution of the online information ecosystem with misinformation, “present entirely new challenges to civic discourse”.
“This isn’t about free expression,” he added, in a seeming riposte to the Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent defense of online political advertising in a speech billed as a “stand for voice and free expression”. “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle. It’s worth stepping back in order to address.”
Dorsey tweeted another counter-argument to Facebook with an accompanying winking emoji, writing: “It’s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad…well…they can say whatever they want!’”
That argument appears to mock Facebook’s recent attempts to justify its decisions to exempt posts by politicians from its third-party fact-checking program, and ads by politicians from a policy that bans false statements from paid advertisements.
Together, the policies have created a situation in which Facebook is simultaneously asserting its commitment to reducing misinformation while allowing incumbent politicians and political candidates to lie in paid campaign ads.
Facebook employees ‘strongly object’ to policy allowing false claims in political ads
Hundreds of Facebook employees have signed a letter to executive Mark Zuckerberg decrying his decision to allow politicians to post advertisements on the platform that include false claims.
More than 250 employees signed the letter, which was posted on an internal communication message board for the company, the New York Times reported Monday. They expressed concern that Facebook “is on track to undo the great strides [its] product teams have made in integrity over the last two years”.
“Misinformation affects us all,” the letter said. “Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands.”
Facebook has come under fire in recent weeks after the company rescinded an internal policy in late September, exempting political advertising from fact-checking.