Facebook Weighs Ban on Political Ads in the Days Leading into the US Presidential Election

Despite standing firm in the face of ongoing calls for it to change approach to political content, despite criticizing other social platforms for taking action on such, and adding warning labels to comments from leaders.

Despite Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly stating that he believes his company is ‘on the right track’ with its political content approach, it seems that it is now seriously reconsidering its stance, with Bloomberg reporting that The Social Network is currently weighing a possible ban on all election ads in the days leading into the 2020 US Presidential Election in November.

As per Bloomberg:

“The potential ban is still only being discussed and hasn’t yet been finalized, said the people, who asked not to be named talking about internal policies.”

The details are fairly limited, but the process would essentially see the implementation of a ‘blackout’ period for political ads on the platform, which could limit the misuse of political campaigns to supress voting activity, while also going some way to meet public demands for Facebook to do more to stop divisive campaigning heading into the poll.

This is not the first time such a proposal has been floated.

Last December, The Washington Post reported that Facebook had raised the idea of a blackout period, covering the 72 hours leading into an election, with both Republican and Democrat officials – who both rebuked the idea.

As per WP:

Both parties have warned Facebook against taking aggressive steps to curb political advertising. On Wednesday, top Republicans expressed concerns that some of the proposals could disproportionately affect the president’s reelection effort. Trump represents one of Facebook’s most prolific spenders, having shelled out more than $23 million on ads since May 2018 and often running many ads in a single campaign that are tweaked slightly to maximize engagement and reach.”

The Republican party, in particular, has become reliant on Facebook ads to maximize their messaging reach, and as such, it has strongly opposed any suggestion of a change in Facebook’s political ads rules, as it would “benefit Democrats, who do not have as sophisticated a digital strategy as our side.”

But Facebook is under increasing pressure to do more to address concerns with its political advertising approach.

Last October, amid rising criticism of Facebook’s decision not to fact-check political ads, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sought to clarify the company’s stance, explaining that it was about giving people the freedom to hear what elected officials have to say, regardless of what that may be. People can then make more informed decisions on how they should vote.

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.” 

The principle makes sense, but Facebook has since come under more scrutiny over controversial comments from US President Donald Trump, including remarks which have countered official health advice on COVID-19, threatened harm to other nations, and have even promoted the use of violent force against protesters within the US.

This post, in particular, sparked a major advertising boycott of Facebook, with over 400 brands singing on to pause their ad spend on Facebook for the month of July in order to send a message that the platform should not allow divisive rhetoric on its platforms, regardless of who shares it. 

This week, Facebook’s approach to such comments was also criticized by an official civil rights audit of the platform, which Facebook itself had commissioned. The auditors expressed ‘significant concern’ about the company’s approach to comments made by political leaders, and leaving such up on the platform, even if they break the rules.

“The prioritization of free expression over all other values, such as equality and non-discrimination, is deeply troubling.”

Facebook has sought to address the various concerns, at least in some capacity.

Late last month, Zuckerberg said that Facebook would soon roll out new labels to better explain why some content from politicians, which technically violate platform rules, had been left active and unchecked on the platform, largely mirroring Twitter’s approach.

Incidentally, Zuckerberg has been highly critical of Twitter’s decision to add fact-check markers to Trump’s tweets, so the concession that Facebook itself would go down a similar route seemed like a significant step, potentially pointing to more marked change. 

And now, we could be seeing the next stage. The announcement of an election ads blackout period could have a major impact, and while it wouldn’t address all of the noted concerns with Facebook’s approach, it would be another step towards appeasing calls for change, and helping Facebook subvert a reputational crisis, which has already cost it billions in brand value.

It actually seems like a logical step – many nations enforce political ad blackout periods, in varying forms, leading into an election. If Facebook won’t ban political ads outright, as Twitter has done, this may be a good compromise – though the questions around facilitating hate speech and misinformation will, rightfully, continue, and will remain a major source of contention for the platform.

But this could be seen as an indicator that Facebook is listening, that it is hearing the overwhelming calls for change.

And maybe, it could be a significant step towards just that.

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