On October 3, Popular Information reported Facebook's new policy to allow politicians to lie in ads. Although Facebook denied it had made a change, Facebook removed language from its ad policies in late-September that prohibited "false and misleading" advertisements from any source.
Facebook replaced this section with language prohibiting ads with claims that have been debunked by Facebook's official fact-checkers. Facebook's policy is not to subject claims from politicians or political parties to fact-checking, effectively exempting them from the new policy.
Since then, the Trump campaign has been taking full advantage, blanketing Facebook with blatantly false claims.
Facebook claims that it will continue subjecting political ads placed by non-candidates to fact-checking. But in practice, PACs and others face no resistance in running featuring false claims.
Facebook is facilitating a systematic disinformation campaign by the incumbent president and his allies. With 351 days until the next presidential election, Facebook's dysfunctional policy could have a major impact on the outcome.
On November 14, the Trump campaign placed hundreds of Facebook ads with the goal of raising $3 million in 24 hours. Many of these ads were accompanied by a video that portrayed the ongoing impeachment hearings as an illegitimate extension of the Mueller investigation. The video claimed that the Mueller report was a "total exoneration" for Trump.
This precise claim was evaluated by the Associated Press, which is an official Facebook fact-checking partner. "President Donald Trump falsely claimed exoneration from Robert Mueller on Wednesday even as the former special counsel told Congress he offered no such vindication," the AP reported.
The AP noted that Mueller, when asked during his Congressional testimony if he had cleared Trump of criminal wrongdoing, unequivocally answered "No." The Mueller report "declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge Trump, partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted." But the report lays out numerous "instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, leaving it up to Congress to take up the matter."
This ad would theoretically have been taken down by Facebook if it had been placed by a non-candidate. But because the Trump campaign ran the ad, Facebook took no action.
"A promise to their crazy left-wing base"
On November 15, the Trump campaign ran an ad claiming "Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and the rest of the corrupt Democrats made a promise to their crazy left-wing base that they would impeach me even BEFORE I took office." This ad sought to collect campaign advertisements by selling a t-shirt.
This claim has not been fact-checked by an official Facebook partner but is clearly false. Until this September, Pelosi actively opposed impeachment. "I’m not for impeachment... Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it," Pelosi told the Washington Post in a March 2019 interview.
It was only after the whistleblower stepped forward and evidence emerged that Trump had asked the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and the Democrats that Pelosi changed her mind. Schiff supported Pelosi's position and, like Pelosi, opposed impeachment until September.
The shirt being sold in this advertisement, incidentally, is also false. No one can read the "transcript" of Trump's call with the Ukranian president because a transcript was not released. The White House released a "call summary" of the conversation, which is not a complete transcript. As Politifact, another Facebook fact-checking partner, notes, the document released by the White House says it "is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion."(It is, nevertheless, damning.)
A barber named Smitty
Facebook says it will subject political ads placed by non-candidates to fact-checking. But, in practice, ads by PACs with blatantly false claims are being allowed to run. On November 8, The Committee to Defend the President, a pro-Trump group previously known a Stop Hillary PAC, ran an ad touting Trump's appeal to African-Americans. The ad was placed to complement the Trump campaign's rollout of its "Blacks for Trump" initiative in Atlanta.
The ad features former President Barack Obama saying the following:
A plantation. Black people in the worst jobs. The worst housing. Police brutality rampant. But when the so-called black committeemen came around election time, we'd all line up and vote the straight Democratic ticket. Sell our souls for a Christmas turkey.
While it is Obama speaking, those aren't his words or his views. Rather, the ad dishonestly uses a clip for the audiobook of Obama's autobiography. In the book, Obama quotes the views of a barber named Smitty. In the book, Obama goes on to state that he believes in "the power of African-Americans to shape their political destiny when they are unified."
When the same Obama quote was used in a 2017 House race, Facebook fact-checking partner Politifact rated it "Pants on Fire." Popular Information alerted Politifact that The Committee to Defend the President was using the same tactic again. Politifact evaluated this Facebook ad and rated it "Pants on Fire" again.
This reveals the flaw in Facebook's approach. It is relying on computer algorithms that are unable to identify false claims to vet the ads. Once the errors are discovered by humans and evaluated by fact-checkers, it is much too late. The Committee to Defend the President ran the ad for one day, November 8. The Politifact article wasn't published until November 12, long after the damage was already done.
The Committee to Defend the President is a repeat offender, but that doesn't seem to be subjecting its ads to any additional scrutiny. In late October, Facebook took down an ad from the PAC which harvested email addresses by telling Arizona voters that their voter registration was incomplete -- but only after Facebook was alerted by a Washington Post reporter. A few weeks before, the Biden campaign flagged an ad run by The Committee to Defend the President on Facebook featuring a claim fact-checkers had determined to be false. Katie Harbath, the former Republican operative who now oversees all of Facebook's election activity, said the issue was moot because, by the time it received the letter from the Biden campaign, the ad was inactive.
Externalizing the problem
Facebook is a $500 billion company with the resources to hire humans to review political ads before publication. Instead, Facebook claims scrutinizing the ads is other people's problem. Zuckerberg explained his philosophy in a speech at Georgetown on October 17:
Political advertising is more transparent on Facebook than anywhere else — we keep all political and issue ads in an archive so everyone can scrutinize them, and no TV or print does that. 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.
The problem with this approach is that Facebook ads are an entirely different method of communication that broadcast television. At any given time, there are only a handful of distinct political ads on broadcast television, and due to the nature of broadcast TV, each is distributed broadly. This gives journalists and the public a reasonable chance to process and evaluate the most egregious examples.
In contrast, the Trump campaign alone publishes hundreds of distinct Facebook ads every day. These ads are frequently microtargeted at populations unlikely to question its content or flag it for the media.
Yes, Facebook has published these ads in a public library. But the media industry has lost thousands of jobs in recent years — in part because companies like Facebook and Google have diverted much of the ad revenue. It is absurd to expect the remaining journalists to solve this gigantic new problem created by Facebook.
Even when outlets like Popular Information are able to scrutinize these ads in real-time, that information is highly unlikely to penetrate the siloed audience that actually viewed the ad. (It is impossible to know if that ever occurs since specific audience targeting is kept secret by Facebook.) Moreover, while a particular broadcast television ad will run for several days or even weeks, campaign Facebook ads typically run for hours. By the time the ad is "scrutinized," it is too late.
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