Facing criticism over its political ad policies, Facebook pledged Thursday to leave them virtually untouched.
The social media platform will continue to allow lies and misinformation in ads posted by politicians, and will continue to provide “microtargeting” tools that only show certain ads to highly specific segments of the population.
Facebook executive Rob Leathern announced the decision in a blog post, where he couched the company’s inaction in an appeal to free speech and a lack of regulation.
“In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies,” he wrote. “We have based ours on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.”
That laissez-faire approach has forced Facebook into some awkward corners. When the Trump campaign ran an ad in October falsely accusing Democratic rival Joe Biden of corruption in Ukraine, Facebook refused to do anything. CNN, meanwhile, rejected the “demonstrably false” message.
Facebook also looked the other way while an altered video depicting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as drunk spread like wildfire on the platform. (For what it’s worth, the company is also failing to regulate nonpolitical ads that violate its policies. Despite a stated ban on vaccine misinformation, for instance, Facebook continues to run anti-vaccination ads.)
The platform’s inaction contrasts sharply with advertising rivals Google and Twitter, each of which has placed limits on political messaging.
In November, Google restricted campaigns’ ability to microtarget and said it would ban ads that make “demonstrably false claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust.”
And Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey banned political advertising entirely from the site in October, pointedly calling out Facebook’s claims of “free speech” and unwillingness to curb disinformation as he did so.
“It’s not credible for us to say: ‘We’re working hard to stop people from gaming our systems to spread misleading info, buuut if someone pays us to target and force people to see their political ad … well ... they can say whatever they want!’” Dorsey wrote in one tweet.
“This isn’t about free expression,” he concluded. “This is about paying for reach. And paying to increase the reach of political speech has significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”
Troubling as that is, if Facebook followed Twitter’s lead it might actually harm Democrats’ ability to compete. Tara McGowan, CEO of the progressive ad-technology nonprofit Acronym, argues Trump’s head start as an incumbent gives him a nearly insurmountable lead in terms of organic outreach.
“The Trump campaign has spent the past five years using paid advertising to find and build a community of 26 million followers on Facebook — far outpacing the nearest Democrat’s organic following (Sanders: 5.1 million; Warren: 3.3 million; Biden: 1.4 million) and reach on the platform,” McGowan explained.
“If Facebook were to eliminate political advertising tomorrow, Trump would still be able to communicate with his supporters organically, while the Democratic nominee would be permanently resigned to a much smaller audience for the general election,” she said.