Biden goes after Facebook on handling of disinformation

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks June 5 in Dover, Del.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Joe Biden lashed out at Facebook on Thursday, saying the social media company has failed to stop the spread of disinformation and circulating a petition for his supporters to demand the company change its ways.

“Folks, we saw in 2016 what can happen when social media platforms are left unchecked and allow disinformation to run rampant, Biden said in a tweet. “It puts the very integrity of our elections at risk. We simply cannot let it happen again in 2020.”

The Biden campaign says the Democratic nominee wants Facebook Inc. to prioritize trustworthy sources of information ahead of unverified posts, quickly remove viral misinformation, prevent political candidates from spreading inaccurate information and universally enforce rules about voter suppression, specifically calling out President Trump.

Facebook responded by saying it would follow whatever laws elected officials enact.


“Just as they have done with broadcast networks — where the U.S. government prohibits rejecting politicians’ campaign ads — the people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them. There is an election coming in November and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it,” the company said in an unsigned statement.

Facebook has said repeatedly that the 2020 election is a top priority, but has struggled to balance a desire to allow politicians to say whatever they want with being able to ensure its service isn’t used to spread falsehoods. The company has said it will not fact-check political ads from politicians, for example, and has chosen to leave up inflammatory posts from Trump that Twitter Inc. flagged for violating its rules. Last October, Trump lied about Biden in a Facebook ad, and the company did not remove it.

In 2016, Facebook was plagued with disinformation about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Trump, some of which turned out to be fake accounts from a coordinated effort by Russian groups to sow confusion and distrust among voters. Some believe it helped turned the close election in Trump’s favor.

The Biden campaign has privately complained to Facebook for months over its policies, urging the company to take a more active role in fighting disinformation. Unsatisfied with Facebook’s work on the issue, the campaign decided to start a public effort that enlists Biden’s supporters.

On Thursday, the campaign urged its supporters to sign an open letter to Facebook co-founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, calling on him to strengthen the company’s rules on political speech.

“Right now, we’re less than 150 days to the election,” the open letter says. “The time for setting, testing and implementing meaningful policy to protect our elections is running out.

“Facebook — do the right thing. Do your part and change your policies to ensure we have a fair election this November.”

Facebook says that it’s getting very different messages from Biden and Trump on how to handle misinformation. Trump doesn’t want social media companies to interfere with user posts, and issued an executive order to that extent in late May. Facebook says it will continue to err on the side of leaving posts up.

The Trump campaign has also been signaling its eagerness to campaign against Silicon Valley. Last summer, the White House held what it billed as a social media summit, largely to hear complaints from conservative groups who argued they were being victimized by companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

The president’s dispute with Twitter, aside from resulting in an executive order that drew on ideas discussed at the summit, is also showing up in his campaign ads. In recent days, the president’s campaign has run ads online arguing that “Twitter is Censoring Republicans,” and that “Silicon Valley Elites Support Joe Biden.”

“With fewer than five months until the 2020 election, real changes to Facebook’s policies for their platform and how they enforce them are necessary to protect against a repeat of the role that disinformation played in the 2016 election and that continues to threaten our democracy today. We are urging our supporters to make their voices heard in this call for change,” Bill Russo, a Biden campaign spokesman, said in a statement.