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Is Facebook Caving on Political Ads?

Change might be coming after civil rights advocates led an advertiser boycott.

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Facebook is reportedly considering disallowing paid political ads for the remainder of the 2020 race. Such a move, which Twitter made last fall, would be a huge change in light of the role Facebook has played in recent elections. So how did we get here?

Last month, organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change, Common Sense, Free Press, NAACP, Sleeping Giants, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mozilla and National Hispanic Media Coalition called on commercial advertisers on Facebook to act against hate and disinformation being spread by Facebook in a campaign called “Stop Hate for Profit.” Coming on the heels of the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests, the #StopHateforProfit campaign asked commercial advertisers to not spend money on Facebook ads in July as a sign of solidarity.

The groups are primarily concerned with the proliferation of hate speech and disinformation that circulates on Facebook, especially targeted at minorities and people of color. But the campaign also has broader concerns about the deleterious impact Facebook has had on America’s democracy.

One of the campaign’s demands is that Facebook “Ensure accuracy in political and voting matters by eliminating the politician exemption; removing misinformation related to voting; and prohibiting calls to violence by politicians in any format. Given the importance of political and voting matters for society, Facebook’s carving out an exception in this area is especially dangerous.” (I have previously written about Facebook’s puzzling stance in favor of lying by politicians.)

Perhaps coincidently, the very day the #StopHateforProfit campaign started on June 17, Facebook announced that it would allow users to opt out of seeing political ads on the platform. This is an improvement, but it doesn’t solve the problem of disinformation in political ads for everyone who isn’t proactive about managing their Facebook settings.

At first, the boycott only attracted a few left-leaning corporations like Ben & Jerrys and Patagonia. But the effort quickly gained steam over the ensuing weeks and expanded to 396 advertisers pledging not to advertise on Facebook during July. It included brands as various as Adidas, Best Buy, Boeing, Eileen Fisher, Ford, Gamestop, Levi’s, Pfizer, Verizon, Walgreens, and White Castle. 

It worth noting that it’s hard to know from the outside whether this was altruism or opportunism, because It’s possible firms were already planning to dial back their advertising dollars because of the Covid-19 recession.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg met with organizers of the boycott on July 7 via video conference. But that meeting didn’t go well, with NAACP President Derrick Johnson saying that it was a “waste of time.”

Just as the advertiser boycott was kicking in, Facebook got more bad news. An audit it had commissioned on its civil rights stances found that the company was not doing enough to combat racially motivated hate on the platform. The introduction said, “In our view Facebook has made notable progress in some areas, but it has not yet devoted enough resources or moved with sufficient speed to tackle the multitude of civil rights challenges that are before it. This provokes legitimate questions about Facebook’s full-throated commitment to reaching the summit, i.e., fighting discrimination, online hate, promoting inclusion, promoting justice and upholding civil rights.”

In reaction to the audit, Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson said the problem with Facebook is how it is “weaponized in our elections and how politicians have a different set of rules when it comes to lying and voter suppression content.” He’s not wrong. As I explained in my book, Political Brands, Facebook was used by Russians in 2016 election to target Black American voters and discourage them from voting. Similar messages were also used by candidates.

And now, in the face of all of this acrimony, Facebook may actually change its policy on political ads. It’s difficult to know whether the company will go through with this or if it’s a trial balloon to see how the public reacts. If it keeps the current policy as is, expect a boatload of political lies in your Facebook feed this summer and fall as the election heats up and the temptation to lie to the public intensifies.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.