Facebook will continue to allow political ads to target its users, sticking to its position despite sharp criticisms and concerns about the social media platform’s potential impact on the upcoming presidential election. Federal Election Commissioner Ellen Weintraub is sharply criticizing the policy, saying Facebook’s “weak plan suggests the company has no idea how seriously it is hurting democracy.”
The tech giant’s policy falls short of measures recently taken by both Google, which says it will limit the ability of political ads to target an audience, and Twitter, which banned political ads entirely.
Taking aim at the new policy in a series of tweets Thursday morning, Weintraub, a Democrat, said, “I am not willing to bet the 2020 elections on the proposition that Facebook has solved its problems with a solution whose chief feature appears to be that it doesn’t seriously impact the company’s profit margins.”
Facebook also says it’s not changing how it handles the content of ads. While the company says its community standards bar hate speech and harmful content, the policy announced Thursday does not address calls from those who want the company to fact-check ads before it publishes them.
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Facebook’s director of product management, Rob Leathern, wrote, “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.”
Facebook says it shouldn’t be in the business of fact-checking, that the U.S. needs new laws to govern political speech on social media — and to a degree, the American Civil Liberties Union agrees.
“This will not be a popular view. But on the whole, we think that Facebook got this right,” says Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, of the social media company’s new policy.
Describing the gray area that political ads often occupy, Wizner added, “I don’t think Facebook is capable of doing effective fact-checking, and I don’t think as a society we should want Facebook to be the entity that’s making those kinds of distinctions.”
Part of the issue, he says, is the massive scale of political ads — not only at the federal, state and local levels in the U.S., but also in every country in which Facebook operates. Wizner predicts that if Facebook took up fact-checking in earnest, it would be inundated with demands from candidates and political campaigns that want the other side’s ads taken down, rather than responding to them in public.
Despite backing part of Facebook’s revised policy, Wizner agrees with critics who say the company should change how it handles targeted political advertising.
“There is something different about online microtargeted advertisements and the kind of political advertisements that we’ve mainly seen in the past, on radio and television,” he says. With targeted ad campaigns, he adds, “it’s possible for candidates to send one advertisement to me and a different one to my neighbor across the street. And so that makes it easier for lies to go uncorrected.”
Among the changes Wizner would like to see: more information from Facebook about which users have been targeted with political ads, so misleading information can be rebutted.
“If a candidate is going to run an ad that goes only to men in one neighborhood, or only to women in another, then we should know who the target audience was,” he says. “So that if the ad contains falsehoods, we know how to better target our responses and corrections. And Facebook should consider raising the minimum number of targeted audience members for ads — so that we’re dealing with a more common political conversation, and not a different one for each household.”
The FEC’s Weintraub has urged tech companies to take an aggressive stand against microtargeting potential voters with ads. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post last November, Weintraub wrote, “Microtargeting by foreign and domestic actors in 2016 proved to be a potent weapon for spreading disinformation and sowing discord.”
Facebook promises its approach will bring “unprecedented transparency and control for political ads.” But its solution doesn’t satisfy critics who say Facebook’s users still won’t be able to opt out completely and block all political or social issue ads. Experts also note that the tools Facebook is giving to its users can be complicated to use and can be easily overlooked as just another “terms of service” bulletin.
“More transparency and user control over advertising is an undeniably good thing, but this policy still doesn’t go far enough,” says Nina Jankowicz, who studies technology and politics as the Disinformation Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Jankowicz says that while Facebook is giving people more control of the political ads they see, many users could have trouble navigating its tools.
“How many people understand the way microtargeting works, let alone Facebook’s Custom Audience feature, which allows advertisers to target on an even more precise level?” she asks.
Jankowicz says Facebook should offer the controls in an easy-to-use design and do more to educate its more than 2 billion users about what the changes mean. And she believes people who are on Facebook should regularly review how their profiles handle politics.
“Like democratic discourse, this should be a feature that users are constantly interacting with and adjusting based on their own inclinations and personal experiences on the site,” she says. “Based on Facebook’s track record with features like these, I’m not sure that’s going to happen.”
As Facebook’s Leathern discussed the company’s ad policy, he also acknowledged those who are unhappy with its practices.
“We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position,” Leathern wrote. “We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policymakers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections.”