Facebook announced Thursday that it will maintain its policy of not fact-checking political ads, despite growing public pressure to not allow false information by candidates.
In a post to the company’s website, Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management overseeing the advertising integrity division, said the company would not change its policy against policing political ads, saying, “We don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team have asserted that fact-checking the ads would amount to censorship.
“In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies,” wrote Leathern. “We have based ours on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.”
Twitter recently announced a ban on most kinds of political ads, and Google put in place a policy to limit “microtargeting” of voters by political affiliation, although it would still allow advertisers to choose their audience based on demographic information. Leathern said Facebook would allow users to opt out of seeing political and social issues ads entirely.
Facebook, Leathern said, wanted the government to promulgate regulations on political advertising, writing, “We believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this the better.” Last year, Facebook and other tech giants spent a record amount on lobbying as legislators on both sides of the aisle threatened increased regulation of Silicon Valley.
In October, Facebook said that it wasn’t removing an ad from the Trump campaign that contained lies about former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. The previous month, Zuckerberg and Trump had a surprise meeting at the White House, which the president referred to as “nice.” Facebook announced a change in policy five days later: It would not fact-check or remove content by politicians even if the posts violate the company’s rules. Nick Clegg, the company’s vice president of global affairs and communications, wrote, “It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak,” adding that would be done only if a politician’s speech endangers people.
For nonpolitical ads, Facebook will remove content that can be debunked by third-party fact checkers or promote discrimination. The network also bans ads that contain adult content, promote the sale of tobacco or weapons and anything they deem “shocking, sensational, disrespectful or excessively violent content.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading critic of Facebook, posted a deliberately false ad on the social network in October to prove the dangers of the current system.
“Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” reads the ad. “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well it’s not. (Sorry.) But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.”
Zuckerberg was grilled over the policy at an October hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, often failing to answer legislators’ questions.
“Could I run ads targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?” asked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. “If you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here, what’s fair game.”
“I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head,” said Zuckerberg. “I think probably.”
“Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact checking on political advertisements?”
“Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad,” said Zuckerberg. “And I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie, that would be bad.” But he said it wasn’t Facebook’s role “to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.”
“So you won’t take down lies, or you will take down lies?” asked Ocasio-Cortez. “I think that’s a pretty simple yes or no.”
“In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians that they may or may not vote for are saying and judge their character for themselves,” said Zuckerberg.
Under questioning from Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., the Facebook CEO was unable to confirm that hate speech from a candidate running for office would be removed from the social network. Casten cited a former member of the American Nazi Party who ran for Congress and won a Republican primary in 2018.
“I’m asking the question whether you can spread hate speech if you’re an elected official or trying to be, but you would not be allowed to if you were not in that capacity?” said Casten.
“Congressman, I think that depends on a bunch of specifics,” said Zuckerberg, “that I’m not familiar with this case and can’t answer to.”
“Well, that’s rather shocking,” said Casten. “I don’t think that’s a hard question.”
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