Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that the social media company would stop allowing new political ads a week before November 3, when election to the US’ president and many other federal, state and local offices will be held. However, political ads published before the final week will still be allowed to run on the platform (more on that below). In a statement posted on his official profile, Zuckerberg announced several other steps Facebook will take to apparently encourage voting and restrict the spread of misinformation.

Zuckerberg said that the upcoming election was not “business as usual”. “I’m also worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country.”

What will Facebook be doing before the election?

  • No new political ads during final week of campaigning (the key word being ‘new’): Zuckerberg said Facebook would block all political and issue ads (which are about particular issues rather than candidates themselves) during the week leading to the elections. He argued that political ads can always be scrutinised and checked, but there might not be enough time to contest new claims if they are made just days before the election. Advertisers can, meanwhile, continue to run ads that have debuted before the final week begins.
  • Forwarding limitations on Messenger: Facebook will limit the number of chats a message can be forwarded to at one time. Zuckerberg noted that such restrictions have been implemented on WhatsApp across the world. Later it was announced on Messenger’s website that it would allow users to forward a message to only five people or groups at a time. In the recent past, WhatsApp has imposed stricter restrictions forwarding messages as well.
  • Facebook to start working with election officials to remove misinformation immediately: Zuckerberg said that earlier Facebook had decided to partner with state election authorities to remove false claims about polling conditions to prevent voter suppression 72 hours before polling day. However, he said that given the election would include large amounts of early voting, Facebook would begin this work immediately.
  • Expansion of voter suppression policies: Facebook will be getting into the nitty-gritty details of posts about voting conditions in an attempt to prevent misrepresentation about how easy or difficult it is to vote at a particular place. Zuckerberg said that the company would look into “implicit misrepresentations” now. Hence, a statement like “I hear anybody with a driver’s license gets a ballot this year” would violate Facebook’s policy as, according to Zuckerberg, it would mislead users about what they would need to do to get a ballot “even if that wouldn’t necessarily invalidate your vote by itself”.
  • No claims about risk of getting Covid-19 during voting: Zuckerberg said that Facebook would put in rules to prevent threats related to COVID-19 to discourage voting. He said that it was important that Covid-19 is not used to scare people into not exercising their right to vote. Posts that might have such threats will be tagged with links to information on COVID-19. Political ads making such threats would not be allowed altogether.

Steps for after election

Zuckerberg said that it was important to understand that the final tally of the votes might not be ready on election day, as it has been so in the case of previous elections. “It’s important that we prepare for this possibility in advance and understand that there could be a period of intense claims and counter-claims as the final results are counted.” he said.

  • Voting Information Centre to spread the message: Facebook’s Voting Information Centre will “prepare” people for the possibility that it may take a while to get official results.
  • Partnering with Reuters and National Election Pool: Facebook will partner with the two organisation to update information about the election results in its Voter Information Centre. Once available, Facebook will “proactively” make the results available to its users.
  • Will call out candidates, campaigns if they declare victory prematurely: The company will add labels to posts by candidates or campaigns before the official results are in. Through the labels, users will be directed to the official results.
  • Labelling of content that delegitimises the outcome of election: Posts that seek to discuss the legitimacy of the voting methods would be flagged with labels which provide “basic authoritative information” about the the election’s integrity.

Zuckerberg said that Facebook will be focusing on restricting foreign governments and individuals from interfering in the elections, which was seen four years ago. Noting that the threat hadn’t gone away, he said the company has invested heavily in its security systems to prevent such coordinated online attacks. He added: “We’ve removed more than 100 networks worldwide engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior over the past couple of years, including ahead of major democratic elections.”

Similar steps taken recently in Myanmar

Earlier this week, Facebook announced several steps it would be taking ahead of the Myanmar elections. These steps are being taken in light of antipathy towards ethnic and religious minorities in that country. Many of the steps are similar to the ones Facebook has taken now in the US.

Facebook has, in fact, had a chequered past in Myanmar. An investigation by the United Nations had found the company had been used to spread hate speech against Rohingya Muslims, which culminated in a genocide and exodus in 2017. In 2018, Facebook admitted that it was used to “foment division and incite offline violence” and that it could have done more.