Facebook’s Lack of Ad Fact Checking Is a ‘Blank Check’ for Politicians to Mislead Voters, Critics Say
Adriel Hampton heard twice from Facebook fact checkers that he couldn’t run an ad from his political action committee that incorrectly suggested that Sen. Lindsey Graham supports the Green New Deal.
However, the take down notices from Facebook gave the California marketer an idea: Hampton could run the ads—or anything else he wanted that wasn’t true—if he was registered as a politician. And that’s exactly what he did on Monday, when he filed to become a candidate in the California gubernatorial race. And he credits Facebook for the inspiration.
“Now I know the route to running false ads on Facebook,” Hampton tells Fortune.
Facebook’s policies around false statements in political advertising, coupled with the company’s granular ad targeting that allows campaigns to target variations of ads to very specific demographics, is coming under fire from critics both inside and outside of the company. The issue, according to critics, is that the advertisements don’t give voters the chance to participate in “public scrutiny,” since ads can include misleading information and be so finely tailored to various groups of people.
“If any politician runs an ad that is deceptive, not only are there actual regulations on broadcast, but the public has a shared experience” of seeing the ad, says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a nonprofit trade association that works with digital content companies. “As a private platform, (Facebook) can set the rules for what they are going to filter or not filter or amplify.”
While Facebook has been keen to at least talk about efforts to clean up misinformation on the platform, the one area the company refuses to touch is the veracity of ads being run by politicians on the platform, and how countless iterations of those ads can be targeted to very specific audiences. The issue first became a major flashpoint earlier this month when Facebook refused to remove an ad paid for by President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign that spread false claims that former Vice President Joe Biden used his influence to enrich his son’s business dealings in Ukraine. Trump hasn’t offered any evidence to back up his claims. Elizabeth Warren also spotlighted the issue when she purposefully ran false ads claiming that Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Trump for re-election.
Now, even Facebook employees are questioning the policy. Hundreds of staffers signed a letter to Zuckerberg and other executives calling the policy to allow lies in political advertisements a “threat to what FB stands for,” the New York Times reported on Monday.
In the letter, the employees describe how politicians can upload voter rolls and then use Facebook’s behavioral tracking tools, including the Facebook tracking pixel and advertising engagement, to target a custom audience. They ask that Facebook restrict targeted advertisements.
“The risk with allowing this is that it’s hard for people in the electorate to participate in the ‘public scrutiny’ that we’re saying comes along with political speech,” the letter says. “These ads are often so micro-targeted that the conversations on our platforms are much more siloed than on other platforms.”
Zuckerberg has been questioned on the policy, but has cited free speech concerns. In a letter late Monday night, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) urged him to reconsider allowing lies in political ads. He instead suggested that Facebook hold itself to a standard similar to cable channels, which are not required by law to run dishonest ads. CNN, for instance, declined to run Trump’s false ad about Biden that was circulated on Facebook.
“The public nature of broadcast television, radio, print, cable, and satellite ensured a level of accountability for traditional political advertisements,” Warner says in the letter. “In addition to being broadly accessible to the electorate, these communications are accessible to the press, fact-checkers, and political opponents through media monitoring services that track broadcast content across television and radio markets.”
Warner also called on Facebook to show exactly how false advertisements are being targeted, that way other politicians have the opportunity to “correct the record” for the same audience, which could be as specific as seniors in a certain zip code who have grandchildren, are retired, and like Lady Gaga.
In an op-ed published in USA Today on Tuesday, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, and Nell McCarthy, the director of policy management, wrote that “it’s better to let voters make their own decisions, not companies like Facebook.”
“Speech from candidates and elected officials is already highly scrutinized; it’s a good thing. But for that to happen, the public and the news media have to see it,” they write. “In fact, if Facebook became the gatekeeper of truth, the first people to complain would be those who are complaining now — for good reason.”
Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications Nick Clegg said in a speech last month that “it is not our role to intervene when politicians speak.” The company did not immediately respond to an additional request from Fortune regarding the increasing pressure Facebook is facing to address the political ads issue from employees, politicians, and people like Hampton, who simply became a politician overnight, and can now run ads about pretty much whatever he wants to say about politics.
Hampton says Facebook’s policy is a “blank check” for Trump or any politician who wants to mislead the electorate.
“My biggest concern as a progressive activist and big believer in democracy is no matter how well-intentioned the company and its employees—who are all highly qualified and smart people—they shouldn’t be the ones making this decision,” about the ad policy, Hampton says. “It’s a decision we need democratic hearings about.”
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