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Last week, Facebook quietly changed the language of its advertising policies to make it easier for politicians to lie in ads.
On Tuesday, the Trump campaign launched a new ad on Facebook, which includes a claim that was ruled false by Facebook-approved third-party fact-checkers. On the surface, such an ad appears to violate Facebook's rules against false content in ads. But Facebook quietly amended its policy on "misinformation" in advertising, allowing it to accept nearly any from a politician, including this new one from the Trump campaign.
In the last week, the Trump campaign has exponentially increased its Facebook spending, shelling out over $1.5 million for ads.
Trump's new video ad attacks rival Joe Biden. The ad (which you can watch here) states: "Joe Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion dollars if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son's company."
Facebook's advertising rules now delineate 32 categories of "Prohibited Content." Number 13 on that list is "Misinformation." According to that section, "Facebook prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers."
Facebook partners with several third-party fact-checkers who are certified by Poynter's International Fact-Checking Network. At least two of Facebook's fact-checking partners, Politifact and Factcheck.org, have reviewed Trump's assertion, featured in his new ad. Both fact-checkers clearly concluded that Trump's claim about Biden was false.
On September 24, Factcheck.org wrote: "[T]here is no evidence that Hunter Biden was ever under investigation or that his father pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin on his behalf."
On September 23, Politifact wrote: "Hunter Biden did do work in Ukraine, but we found nothing to suggest Vice President Biden acted to help him."
A Facebook spokesperson, however, told Popular Information that the ad does not violate Facebook's policies because ads from political candidates are ineligible for fact-checking.
Facebook changes the rules
Prior to last week, Facebook had a rule against running any ads with "false and misleading" content: "Ads, landing pages, and business practices must not contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods."
But today, category 13 of prohibited content has been narrowed significantly. Now, Facebook only "prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise."
The old rules prohibited all ads that contained "false" and "misleading" content and made no mention of the fact-checking program. The new rules are limited to claims that are "debunked by third-party fact checkers."
Moreover, Facebook says "political figures" are exempt from even that narrow restriction.
It's open season.
Facebook's convoluted rationale
In support of this contention that ads from political candidates are ineligible for fact-checking, the Facebook spokesperson cited a document called "Fact-Checking on Facebook: What Publishers Should Know." That page contains a guide for the "ratings options for third party fact checkers." That guide includes the following category:
Not eligible: The content contains a claim that is not verifiable, was true at the time of writing, or from a website or Page with the primary purpose of expressing the opinion or agenda of a political figure.
Facebook claims this language excludes all direct statements from a candidate or a campaign from fact-checking, including ads. Facebook included a link to this document in its advertising policies when it revised them last week.
Now, no matter how many lies are contained in an ad from Trump (or any other political figure), Facebook will allow it to run.
Clegg's confusing speech
Last week, Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of Global Affairs and Communications gave a speech at the Atlantic Festival to talk about the company's efforts to fight interference and misinformation in advance of the 2020 election. At times, Clegg appears to indicate that ads from politicians would be subject to fact-checking:
That’s why I want to be really clear today – we do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.
Of course, there are exceptions. Broadly speaking they are two-fold: where speech endangers people; and where we take money, which is why we have more stringent rules on advertising than we do for ordinary speech and rhetoric.
But in a preamble to the speech posted on Facebook, Clegg writes that "we will not send organic content or ads from politicians to our third-party fact-checking partners for review." Clegg did not explain, however, that excluding ad from politicians from review by third-party fact checkers means that no from a politician will be rejected for false content.
Trump ignored the old rules
The new rules conveniently solve the Trump campaign's problem with following the old rules.
In the last several months, Popular Information has identified several "false and misleading" ads by the Trump campaign that might not be prohibited under the new definition because they weren't evaluated by one of Facebook's fact-checking partners. The ads include:
A false ad targeting seniors that claimed Trump was still considering closing the southern border "next week" when he had already publicly announced he would not close the border for at least a year.
An ad scamming its supporters by claiming there was a midnight deadline to enter a contest to win the "1,000,000th red MAGA hat signed by President Trump." The ad was run every day for weeks.
An ad that falsely claimed Democrats are trying to repeal the Second Amendment.
Mark Zuckerberg promises to "fight" Elizabeth Warren
As Facebook allows the Trump campaign to run false ads, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg privately said that it would "suck" if Elizabeth Warren, one of the Democratic frontrunners, was elected president. If that happened, Zuckerberg promised to "go to the mat" and "fight" her. He made the comments in a meeting with Facebook employees, which was leaked to The Verge.
That doesn’t mean that, even if there’s anger and that you have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies ... I mean, if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not the position that you want to be in when you’re, you know, I mean … it’s like, we care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things. 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.
These comments directly undercut claims by Trump and his allies that Facebook has a bias against conservatives. In these candid comments, Zuckerberg is much more concerned with the prospect of Warren becoming president -- and the impact on Facebook's bottom line -- than Trump being reelected.
"What would really 'suck' is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy," Warren responded.
UPDATE (10/4, 2PM): Facebook contacted Popular Information to clarify that while ads from politicians and political parties are exempt from fact-checking, political ads by other entities are not exempt. This piece was updated to reflect this distinction.
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