If Facebook was really serious about change it would cut the political ads

With a reputation in desperate need of rebuilding, Facebook could show a real statement of intent by walking away from political advertising – except it just can’t do it.

Facebook Instagram platformIs Facebook really serious about cleaning up its reputation, much tainted after a slew of scandals and a deepening crisis in trust?

The question is worth asking given that only this week the social media behemoth reaffirmed its commitment to political advertising, despite admitting to thwarting numerous plots to interfere with the US 2020 presidential election.

On Monday alone, the company removed four separate accounts from Facebook and Instagram originating in Russia and Iran, which were described by CEO Mark Zuckerberg as “highly sophisticated” attempts by nation states to influence forthcoming elections.

One of the campaigns, according to social network analysis company Graphika, used 50 Instagram accounts and one Facebook account to publish close to 75,000 posts. The perpetrators used numerous false personas and shared memes created by real social media users in the US.

While Zuckerberg is “confident” in Facebook’s ability to identify and stop these campaigns with the US 2020 presidential election about to kick into full swing and the prospect of a general election looming in the UK, not everyone shares his faith.

A prominent critic of Facebook’s relationship with political advertising is Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Earlier this month, she revealed adverts her team deliberately placed on Facebook, making false claims that Mark Zuckerberg had chosen to publicly endorse Donald Trump for the presidency, had been approved by the platform.

In tweets, Warren claimed Facebook has “decided to let political figures lie” to the general public, while its executives and investors get “richer off the ads containing these lies”.

Citing the Wall Street Journal, she alleged that the Trump campaign is currently spending $1m (£772,000) a week on Facebook ads “including ones containing known lies” and argued that “when profit comes up against protecting democracy, Facebook chooses profit.”

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Warren’s blistering attack on Facebook’s connection to fake news came just a week after the company took the contentious decision to make political ads exempt from a wider ban on false claims in advertising.

Posts that are deemed to be opinion pieces and satire are not eligible for verification, including pages that exist “with the primary purpose of expressing the opinion or agenda of a political figure”. This means that claims from a political candidate or their campaign cannot be fact-checked and do not to apply to policies designed to limit the spread of fake news.

On the offensive

The uproar against Facebook’s seemingly cavalier decision to roll back the rules on political advertising was swift and bruising, but the social media giant refuses to change its position. Instead, Zuckerberg and his team went on the offensive this week, announcing a suite of new security measures.

The company is rolling out Facebook Protect, an added security protection for political candidates to prevent their accounts being hacked, and a US presidential candidate spend-tracker, which enables users to see how much politicians are spending on ads down to a state level.

If, or indeed when, a general election is set in the UK Facebook plans to open a dedicated operations centre to monitor political advertising across its platforms. It is already the case that anyone posting a political ad in the UK must go through a “verification process” and provide ID documents to prove who they are and that they live in Britain. Political ads are labelled and put into Facebook’s ad library for seven years as a point of reference.

Of course these measures are a step in the right direction, but they apply to content that is paid for and posted as official political advertising, and do not cover the claims being made by political candidates or their campaigns.

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Rather than struggling to find ways to make political advertising more transparent, surely the easiest thing Facebook could do would be to walk away from it entirely?

Zuckerberg himself has said that, from a financial perspective, this would be simple. Speaking to students at Georgetown University in Washington last week, the Facebook founder admitted that given the sensitivity around political ads he had considered dropping them altogether.

“From a business perspective, the controversy certainly isn’t worth the small part of our business they make up,” he stated.

“But political ads are an important part of voice — especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favours incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

Facebook’s stance is in stark contrast to Chinese rival TikTok, which earlier this month announced it was banning political advertising. The short-form video platform, which Zuckerberg has accused of censoring news of the Hong Kong protests to fit Beijing’s political agenda, says the nature of paid political ads is not something the company believes “fits the TikTok platform experience”.

In a statement, Blake Chandlee, TikTok vice-president of global business solutions and former Facebook vice-president of global partnerships, confirmed the platform will not allow paid for ads that “promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group”, including election-related, advocacy or issue ads.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg talking about privacy at the Facebook Developer Conference.

Zuckerberg argues that if Facebook decided to ban political ads it would mean banning ads on important issues such as healthcare, immigration or women’s empowerment. His view, therefore, is that Facebook should “err on the side of greater expression”.

He also claims that political advertising is “more transparent on Facebook than anywhere else” – a bold statement to make in a post-Cambridge Analytica world where trust in the social media platform has plunged to new depths.

Zuckerberg stated in his Georgetown address that by keeping political ads in an archive for people to scrutinise, Facebook goes beyond the transparency being offered by other media outlets such as TV or print.

He added: “We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.”

Facebook is tying itself up in knots. It admits that financially political advertising is a “small part” of its business and yet is so wedded to this notion of “greater expression” that it would happily let fake news stay on its platform, even if it contravenes its own standards, to allow the public to make up their own minds.

The idea that political advertising is at its most transparent on Facebook rings hollow given how damaged public trust is in the platform and a host of shiny new security measures are not enough to challenge this perception.

As we enter a fierce period of electioneering, both in the UK and globally, the robustness of Facebook’s policies will be tested like never before. Arguably this was the moment that Facebook could have attempted to wipe the slate clean and make a statement of intent about the future of its platform by publicly stepping away from political advertising. Not doing so feels like a real missed opportunity.