Facebook is perfectly content allowing US politicians to run ads featuring statements that are proven false by fact-checkers, a decision that is earning it criticism in the realm of United States politics. The company has amended its advertising policies to exempt political ads from its rule banning “deceptive, false, or misleading content,” thereby allowing politicians to run basically whatever they please.
As the 2020 presidential elections heat up, the policy is particularly worrisome for candidates at the centre of ads which spread fake information. Democratic candidate Joe Biden appealed to Facebook against an ad by US President Donald Trump which made unproven allegations about Biden’s connections to Ukraine. Facebook denied the appeal by arguing that it is not the company’s responsibility or policy to verify claims in political ads.
In another instance, it even removed a fact-check ad created by three doctors, which rebutted am anti-abortion ad by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. After Cruz and other conservative senators protested the ad due to the doctors’ affiliations with reproductive rights organizations, Facebook removed the fact-check video for further review, but left Cruz’ online.
Part of Facebook’s apprehension to limit verified political advertising is likely due to the fear of more oversight from Washington. Facebook executives have already testified before Congress once following a series of data leaks. Furthermore, Trump claimed Facebook was against him during the 2016 election to which Zuckerberg responded, “Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for ideas looks like.”
Facebook did announce plans to make political ads more transparent. First, it has introduced a new labelling feature that will identify the group paying for an ad. Furthermore, it will label ads from state-controlled media outlets and those which it identifies as likely false. Critically, the company will also ban ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout, regardless of who publishes the ad, even politicians.
On Oct. 30, Twitter banned all political advertising prompting many to wonder if Facebook would do the same, or at least take more measures to police political ads. While Facebook is reported to be considering options, doing so would be a major reversal to years of arguments defending its approach.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had sharp words for Facebook.
“When Facebook is the principal news source for more than half of the American people, and the only source of news that most of them pay any attention to, and if it announces that it has no responsibility for the airing of false ads … how are you supposed to get accurate information about anything, let alone candidates running for office?” Clinton asked.
Clinton contended that fake news and advertising via Facebook contributed to her loss in the 2016 election. She was not alone in her criticism. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also argued against Facebook’s policy of allowing targeted political ads. These ads allow advertisers to narrow the reach of their audiences to select subsets of users.
“I think that targeting, in that domain essentially, should not be allowed,” Gates said. “It’s the targeting where you don’t see the hate ad that just appeals to that one person. It’s the targeting that’s really screwed this thing up.”
Social media is one of the primary news sources in modern times, but unlike traditional media platforms, social media sites are highly unregulated and open to anyone to publish. While there are a bevvy of reputable online sources such as NPR, BBC, and The New York Times, social media platforms also deliver news from alternative websites, some of which masquerade as factual news outlets, but in reality are publishing outright lies.
A shockingly-high 40 per cent of traffic to these sites is driven by social media according to research from NYU and Stanford. Comparatively, US news websites received only 10 per cent of their traffic from social media. Furthermore, over 25 per cent of voting-age adults went to fake news websites near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Facebook is under fire not only for its allowance of fake political ads from within the US, but also those ran by foreign actors, both state and non-state. As the 2020 United States presidential election approaches, many may recall the massive systematic interference in the 2016 and 2018 elections by Russia. The disinformation campaigns were confirmed in a report specifically on the subject by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. While part of his investigation did centre on whether or not US President Donald Trump conspired with Moscow, half of it focused on methods Russia employed to guide the election to its favour. Mueller ended a press conference on his findings with a dire warning that if anything was confirmed or should be understood by his report, it was that Russia indeed meddled in the American democratic process.
Fake news posts spread on social media outlets were the go-to tactic for Russian operatives. By spreading disinformation against Hillary Clinton, analysts argued The Kremlin successfully swayed voter opinions of Trump’s opponent. Since that time, Russia has not abated in its efforts to wield social media against the American electorate and other nations have followed suit.
Facebook announced last month it discovered attempts by both Russia and Iran to mislead social media users. One of these groups was connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the faction that led the 2016 election interference. In return, the social media network banned the offending accounts and presumably took other security measures.
“Today, we removed four separate networks of accounts, Pages and Groups for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and Instagram. Three of them originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted a number of different regions of the world: the US, North Africa and Latin America,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Facebook cybersecurity policy in a press release. “All of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing. We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.”
The company also shared that three groups connected to Iran were responsible for creating three Facebook pages and seven Instagram accounts designed to direct people to both a Facebook page and a third-party website. The page, called BLMNews, appeared like an authentic news outlet, however, in reality, it was a one-sided source on political issues including domestic squabbles as race relations and the Black Lives Matter movement and foreign policy hot-points like American and Israeli policies toward Tehran.
A majority of these “inauthentic actions” were targeted toward US audiences, but some included Latin America, Brazil, and Mexico as well. Some of the fake users and malicious pages were caught by automated spam filters, but a large portion were also identified by ongoing reviews of US election interference and previous Iran-linked activity in 2018. Staying atop threats is a struggle, even for the largest social media conglomerate.
“We continue to see their tactics are evolving,” said Mark Zuckerberg. “Today, what we’re basically announcing is that we found a set of campaigns. They are highly sophisticated. They signal that these nation-states intend to be active in the upcoming elections.”
Russia and Iran are not the only adversaries seeking to leverage the power of social media through nefarious means; China also has attempted to interfere. Zuckerberg emphasized his company is taking a proactive approach to identify and shutdown threats early. Undoubtedly, his openness on the issue is in part affected by increased congressional scrutiny. His company has increasingly found itself in the crosshairs of both US political parties and even the British Parliament for issues ranging from privacy and antitrust allegations to its role in elections.
Amid the heightened state of partisan politics that runs rampant ahead of an upcoming election, Facebook seems satisfied standing back and letting US politicians have a free-for-all while focusing its efforts on foreign interference. For what it’s worth, the company has the data to show its efforts are working, at least to an extent. However, after Russian-backed groups paved the way for this new kind of election interference, more state and non-state actors are likely to follow its blueprint, and this already seems to be true of Iran and China. Finally, although the company shared the statistics on the number of fake accounts it has taken down, it is impossible to know how many have slipped through the cracks.
Still, the social media giant will continue to suffer criticism for the way it handles US political advertising. Its attempt to stay neutral by simply not acting on false ads is likely an attempt to appease Trump, but it could backfire if Democrats take control of the White House and US Senate in 2020. Democrats have loudly voiced their preference to regulate companies more strictly and Facebook will be first on their list. With more voters getting their news from social media and the power of targeted advertising, Facebook’s role in the 2020 election will be heavily scrutinized no matter which side wins.