Facebook’s Political Ad Policy Puts the Burden on Users, Not Candidates

January 9, 2020, 11:45 PM UTC

Politicians can still lie in their ads on Facebook and aren’t subject to the same fact checking policy as other advertisers. But Facebook users will soon be able to limit the number of campaign ads they see.

“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,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, says in a blog post on Thursday.

Facebook users in the United States who want to see fewer political ads will have to opt-in when the feature is released sometime this summer, according to Leathern. They’ll also be able to control how an advertiser reaches them based on custom audience lists, which are created when an advertiser or candidate uploads a list of usernames and emails and uses them to target people with ads. 

Leathern says the features offer “expanded transparency and more controls for political ads.” 

With Facebook refusing to budge on its policy, the onus is on users to not only change their settings, but to also be savvy enough to question the content of an ad. And in the Internet’s biggest echo chamber, where micro-targeting is allowed and users are often shown content that re-enforces their beliefs, critics say the tools are an empty gesture that doesn’t address the root problem.

“Facebook has a terrible record in aligning with user expectations, preferring to claim transparency and controls which Facebook can often manipulate and bury,” says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association for the digital industry.More importantly, Facebook and its Instagram division have done absolutely nothing in the past few years to earn the trust to do what is in the public interest.”

Facebook ad targeting is still a mystery to most users, which raises the question of whether they’ll even bother to limit political ads in their feeds. Nearly three-quarters of users 74% were not aware that Facebook keeps a list of their interests and traits, according to a Pew Research Center study conducted in September and October 2018.

Facebook’s decision to continue allowing politicians to advertise misinformation stands in contrast to its other big tech counterparts. Google now limits the ways political ads can be targeted to users in the United States, letting candidates only target people using broad categories, such as gender or post code. Twitter stopped accepting them, and Spotify is pausing them in the United States ahead of the 2020 election.

“Nearly all of Facebook’s high-margin $70 billion business relies on surveillance and micro-targeted advertising,” says Kint. “They’re doing what is lowest risk for their shareholders with a special focus on the one at the top who has been subpoenaed globally, yet refused to testify to answer questions about their past failures in this area,” he adds, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook has dealt with backlash over the past few months for refusing to fact-check political ads. The issue gained widespread attention after President Donald Trump bought ads on its social network to make unfounded accusations that former vice president Joe Biden of using his position to influence policy in Ukraine to benefit his son’s business dealings.

In response, Adriel Hampton, a California politician, decided to file for candidacy for the 2022 governor’s race so he could run false ads about Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to test Facebook’s policy. One ad claimed McConnell supports impeachment, while another suggested Trump would replace Vice President Mike Pence with Fox News host Sean Hannity. The ads were never taken down.

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