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Facebook will ban new political ads in the week before election day

Facebook logo at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York's Times Square
Facebook’s logo at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York’s Times Square.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

With just two months left until the U.S. presidential election, Facebook says it is taking more steps to encourage voting, minimize misinformation and reduce the likelihood of post-election “civil unrest.”

The company said Thursday it will restrict new political ads in the week before the election and remove posts that convey misinformation about COVID-19 and voting. It also will attach links to official results to posts from candidates and campaigns declaring premature victories.

“This election is not going to be business as usual. We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post Thursday. “That means helping people register and vote, clearing up confusion about how this election will work, and taking steps to reduce the chances of violence and unrest.”

Activists hailed the new policies but said the onus will be on Facebook to enforce them. And some experts were skeptical that they’ll really make a difference.

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Siva Vaidhyanathan, a Facebook expert at the University of Virginia, said the company proved once again its incapacity to effectively snuff out dangerous misinformation last week when it failed to remove postings by right-wing militia organizers urging supporters with rifles to converge on Kenosha, Wis.

“Facebook’s biggest problem has always been enforcement,” he said. “Even when it creates reasonable policies that seem well-meaning, it gets defeated by its own scale. So I am not optimistic that this will be terribly effective.”

Facebook and other social media companies are being scrutinized over how they handle misinformation, given issues with President Trump and other candidates posting false information and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its ongoing attempts to interfere in U.S. politics.

Facebook has long been criticized for not fact-checking political ads or limiting how they can be targeted at small groups of people.

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With the nation heavily divided and election results potentially taking days or weeks to be finalized, there could be an “increased risk of civil unrest across the country,” Zuckerberg said.

Civil rights groups said they directly pitched Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives to make many of the changes announced Thursday.

“These are really significant steps but everything is going to depend on the enforcement,” said Vanita Gupta, who was head of the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and now leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “I think they’re going to be tested on it pretty soon.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social network is taking additional steps to counter election-related misinformation, including putting labels on false posts by politicians.

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In July, Trump refused to publicly commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election, scoffing at polls that showed him lagging behind Democratic candidate Joe Biden. That has raised concern over the willingness of Trump and his supporters to abide by election results.

Under the new measures, Facebook says it will prohibit politicians and campaigns from running new election ads in the week before the election. However, they can still run existing ads and change how they are targeted.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager criticized the ban on new political ads, saying it would prevent Trump from defending himself on the platform in the last seven days of the presidential campaign.

Posts with obvious misinformation on voting policies and the COVID-19 pandemic will also be removed. Users can only forward articles to a maximum of five others on Messenger, Facebook’s messaging app. The company also will work with the Reuters news agency to provide official election results and make the information available both on its platform and with push notifications.

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After getting caught off-guard by Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies put safeguards in place to prevent it from happening again. That includes taking down posts, groups and accounts that engage in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and strengthening verification procedures for political ads. Last year, Twitter banned political ads altogether.

The move is Facebook’s latest attempt to fight election-related misinformation by foreign-based pages masquerading as local interest groups.

Zuckerberg said Facebook had removed more than 100 networks worldwide engaging in such interference over the last few years.

“Just this week, we took down a network of 13 accounts and two pages that were trying to mislead Americans and amplify division,” he said.

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But experts and Facebook’s own employees say the measures are not enough to stop the spread of misinformation, including from politicians and in the form of edited videos.

That internal dissent among Facebook employees might have helped influence Zuckerberg’s decision to do something, said Joan Donovan, a disinformation researcher at Harvard University.

“This is a huge about-face for Facebook in this moment because for so long they said they were unwilling to moderate political speech and now at this stage they are drawing very sharp lines and I think that’s because their company cannot survive another four-year scandal,” she said.

Facebook had previously drawn criticism for its ads policy that cited freedom of expression as the reason for letting politicians like Trump post false information about voting.


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