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Facebook’s continuing woes with regulating political ads

Unlike its smaller rival Twitter, Facebook has doubled down on its position to not moderate any political content — both ads and content from political candidate. On September 24, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global affairs and communications, announced that it would continue to exempt ads and content from politicians from fact-checking, even if they violated the site’s hate speech or rules or other policies, as such content is “newsworthy”. Twitter also has a “newsworthiness” exemption, which it calls “public interest”, but that extends only to tweets from verified accounts of elected and nominated government officials and candidates with more than 100,000 followers, not to ads.

“It’s why Twitter can’t do as good of a job as we can. I mean, they face, qualitatively, the same types of issues. But they can’t put in the investment. But they can’t put in the investment. Our investment on safety is bigger than the whole revenue of their company.” – Mark Zuckerberg, in a leaked audio from internal Facebook meetings

Facebook refuses to remove fake ad about Biden: Facebook faced its litmus test, and spectacularly failed as per some, earlier this month when it refused to remove a video ad by the Trump campaign which stated that Former Vice President Joe Biden offered Ukraine $1 billion in aid if the company stopped investigating his son. CNN had earlier refused to air the same ad, as it made false accusations.

Warren tests Facebook’s political advertising system with a fake ad: Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren revealed in a Twitter thread that she had deliberately placed a false ad on Facebook that falsely claimed that Facebook and Zuckerberg are backing Trump’s re-election in 2020. She had done it to see how far the platform’s “disinformation-for-profit machine” went.

Warren has emerged as a vocal critic of Big Tech, to the extent that when Verge released transcripts from Zuckerberg’s two internal meetings at Facebook that were held in July, it was revealed that electing Warren as president would mean legal challenge for Facebook. “But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight,” he had said.

Zuckerberg champions free speech at Georgetown University: At Georgetown University, Zuckerberg, despite his habitual incoherence, was clear that Facebook couldn’t be the arbitrator of speech, and that Facebook championed free speech. Going as far as to call social media a “Fifth Estate”, he drew a stark comparison — without enshrining First Amendment as an absolute, Facebook would turn into China. This speech, as expected, as widely panned by many, including Elizabeth Warren, Bill Russo (spokesperson for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign), and Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s daughter.

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“I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.” Mark Zuckerberg at Georgetown University

Zuckerberg is grilled by Congress: Much of Zuckerberg’s five hours-long testimony before the House Financial Services Committee on October 24, instead of focussing on Libra, focussed on issues of political advertising and disinformation campaigns. He was questioned by Congresswomen Maxine Waters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib about unchecked free speech on the platform and lack of vetting for political advertising. All this while, he maintained, “In a democracy, I believe that people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying, and judge their character for themselves.”

Facebook employees protest against company’s policy: Few days after that, on October 27, Facebook’s employees sent a letter to Zuckerberg, registering their protest against the company’s decision to not vet posts and ads from politicians. They said that this would “undo the great strides our product teams have made in integrity over the last two years” and “increase distrust” in the platform by allowing organic and paid content to sit side-by-side, some of which has been fact-checked. Also, they highlighted that this would ocmmunicate that the company is okay with “profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in o seeking positions of power”. Calling the company’s current policies on fact-checking politicians “a threat to what FB stands for”, they said that it allows politicians to “weaponise out platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy”.

“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.” – Facebook employees in letter to Zuckerberg

Suggestions made by employees for ad-related content:

  1. Hold all ads, including political ads, to the same standard.
  2. Visually differentiate political ads from organic ads so that people can easiliy establish context.
  3. Restrict micro-targeting for political ads as currently politicians and their campaigns can use tools such as Custom Audiences and FB pixel to micro-target users. This creates more profound silos on Facebook than on any other platform, something that the letter admits.
  4. Observe election silence periods globally.
  5. Spend caps for individual politicians, regardless of the source
  6. Clearer policies for political ads so that it’s obvious to users that political ads are not fact-checked by Facebook.

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