On Wednesday, Facebook announced it would no longer allow paid advertisements that seek to delegitimize the outcome of the November election. The company described the decision as part of its effort to “protect the integrity” of the 2020 presidential race.
But the social media giant is continuing to allow unpaid posts that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election — the most popular of which come from President Donald Trump and his supporters.
Under Facebook’s new policy, a paid ad “calling a method of voting inherently fraudulent or corrupt, or using isolated incidents of voter fraud to delegitimize the result of an election” would be prohibited, Rob Leathern, a director of product management at Facebook, tweeted Wednesday.
Just hours after Facebook’s announcement, Trump posted on Facebook, doing exactly that.
“100,000 DEFECTIVE BALLOTS IN NEW YORK. THEY WANT TO REPLACE THEM, BUT WHERE, AND WHAT HAPPENS TO, THE BALLOTS THAT WERE FIRST SENT? THEY WILL BE USED BY SOMEBODY. USA, END THIS SCAM - GO OUT AND VOTE!” Trump wrote on Facebook, referring to New Yorkers who received ballots with return envelopes bearing the wrong names and addresses, the result of a printer error.
Contrary to Trump’s post, voters have been instructed to mail only one ballot, and ballot-processing machines will be able to detect duplicates, a city elections commissioner said.
Facebook attached a disclaimer to Trump’s post, assuring viewers that “voting by mail has a long history of trustworthiness in the US and the same is predicted this year.” But the platform does not appear to have taken any action to stop the spread of a false narrative about a fraudulent vote-by-mail system in New York. By Thursday evening, Trump’s was one of Facebook’s top-performing posts over the previous 24 hours, according to Crowdtangle, an engagement monitoring tool the company owns.
The company did not provide a direct answer about why the new policy only applies to paid ads, even though the president and his allies often use regular posts to attack the legitimacy of the election. “When it comes to organic posts, we will attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods,” Facebook spokesperson Devon Kearns wrote in an email.
Over the past several months, Trump and his supporters have railed against voting by mail and have launched a legal campaign to stop absentee ballots from being counted — even as the Republican Party has simultaneously urged its voters to take advantage of expanded absentee voting during the pandemic. Framing mail-in-voting as a scam is a key element of Trump’s reelection strategy: It is a voter suppression tactic that also lays the groundwork for the president to reject the results of the election if he loses.
Facebook plays a critical role in spreading that false narrative. Nearly half of the platform’s top-performing posts over a several-month period that mentioned voting by mail were false or misleading, according to a ProPublica investigation published in July.
In a July civil rights audit report, Facebook auditors found that “when it comes to voting, Facebook has been far too reluctant to adopt strong rules to limit misinformation and voter suppression.” The auditors cited three posts from May in which Trump wrongly described the mail-in ballots sent out in Nevada and Michigan as “illegal” and falsely claimed that California is mailing ballots to everyone in the state, regardless of their eligibility to vote.
The auditors argued that all three posts violated Facebook’s own voter interference policy, which prohibits misrepresentation about methods of voting and about the information or materials needed to vote. People who see Trump’s posts about mail-in-voting could reasonably worry that they might be doing something illegal by filling out the ballot they received in the mail, the auditors said.
“For an authoritative figure like a sitting President to label a ballot issued by a state ‘illegal’ amounted to suppression on a massive scale, as it would reasonably cause recipients of such official ballots to hesitate to use them,” the auditors wrote.
The auditors said they did not have an opportunity to speak with decision-makers at Facebook about removing the posts until the company had already decided to leave them up.
“With less than five months before a presidential election, it confounds the Auditors as to why Facebook has failed to grasp the urgency of interpreting existing policies to make them effective against suppression and ensuring that their enforcement tools are as effective as possible,” the auditors wrote.
“Facebook’s failure to remove the Trump voting-related posts and close enforcement gaps seems to reflect a statement of values that protecting free expression is more important than other stated company values.”