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The Fight Over Facebook Political Ads Ahead of the 2020 Election

A state and investors are challenging the company’s policies.

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This year, Amer­ican voters are tasked with choos­ing the next pres­id­ent, all 435 members of the House, a third of the Senate, as well as 11 governors and hundreds of state legis­lat­ors. If those voters use Face­book, they will likely wade through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of polit­ical ads. And if those ads are from politi­cians, then they can be balder­dash all the way down.

The journ­al­ist McKay Coppins predicts that $1 billion dollars will be spent on disin­form­a­tion in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Both major party candid­ates and their super PACs have inves­ted early in Face­book ads. In Novem­ber 2019, the Trump campaign had already spent over $21 million on Face­book. Accord­ing to Face­book’s ad archive of past polit­ical ads, Trump’s campaign has now spent over $36 million on Face­book ads, while pro-Trump super PAC Amer­ica First Action has spent roughly $1 million since 2018.

By contrast, the Biden campaign has spent more than $12 million on Face­book ads. Unite the Coun­try and Bridge to the 21st Century, both pro-Biden super PACs, have each spent around $1 million.

Face­book’s community stand­ards policies allow the social media behemoth to police all sort of content and remove misrep­res­ent­a­tions and false news. This is why Face­book is accused of being the world’s biggest censor. (It can censor all it likes under the First Amend­ment because it is not the govern­ment.)

But those stand­ards don’t apply to politi­cians. Last year, Face­book said it would not prevent paid advert­ise­ments from politi­cians from publish­ing lies in targeted ads. This gives politi­cians a priv­ileged status over the rest of the nation on the world’s largest social network.

Face­book has been criti­cized by many, includ­ing 200 of its own employ­ees, for its lax posi­tion on polit­ical lies. And it has been blas­ted for its role in Russi­a’s misin­form­a­tion campaign during the 2016 elec­tion. In 2018, Face­book paid a $200,000 settle­ment to the state of Wash­ing­ton for flout­ing the state’s elec­tion laws, which require the social media giant to be more trans­par­ent about who is buying ads on its plat­form.

Acting as a conduit of lies and break­ing state campaign finance rules are seri­ous prob­lems with its wide­spread reach, since 7 in 10 Amer­ican adults use Face­book. Now two more groups are stand­ing up to Face­book: the state of Wash­ing­ton (once again) and some of Face­book’s own investors.

On April 13, Wash­ing­ton sued Face­book for fail­ing to comply with the state’s new campaign finance disclos­ure laws that were enacted in 2018. The suit also claimed that the company was viol­at­ing the terms of a 2018 settle­ment.

Although Face­book’s published policy states that it won’t place ads from Wash­ing­ton State, the new suit alleges that Face­book accep­ted more than half a million dollars from scores of polit­ical commit­tees for ads that did not comply with Wash­ing­ton state’s trans­par­ency laws. These laws require plat­forms like Face­book to keep records of who purchased polit­ical ads. The laws don’t directly address the polit­ical ad mendacity prob­lem, but, on the margins, having a record of the true source of online polit­ical ads might encour­age more truth­ful­ness in those ads.

Mean­while, Face­book is also facing pres­sure from its own investors to change its beha­vior. Last month, Harring­ton Invest­ments, a “socially respons­ible” invest­ment firm, filed a share­holder resol­u­tion about Face­book’s lying-in-polit­ical-ads policy. In a press release, firm’s pres­id­ent said that under Face­book’s policy, voters would “be abused with deceit­ful and fraud­u­lent polit­ical content.” The resol­u­tion called on manage­ment to “assess the oper­a­tional, repu­ta­tional, and social license implic­a­tions of the company policies, as well as the board’s assess­ment of the concerns regard­ing the poten­tial impact of those policies on demo­cracy, public discourse, and civil and human rights.”

Face­book’s annual general meet­ing of share­hold­ers is sched­uled for May 27. It will be an oppor­tun­ity for other share­hold­ers to weigh in and vote on the polit­ical ads policy.

Share­holder propos­als like Harring­ton’s may soon be the last of its kind. The Secur­it­ies and Exchange Commis­sion is currently rewrit­ing the rules that allow for smal­ler investors to file such propos­als, making it much more diffi­cult — despite over 14,000 comment letters to the SEC on the issue, with a super-major­ity oppos­ing the planned changes.

Whatever the outcome of Face­book’s annual share­hold­ers meet­ing or Wash­ing­ton State’s latest lawsuit, it’s still not too late for Face­book to do the right thing for the 2020 elec­tion. Wash­ing­ton has a gubernat­orial race this year, and, of course the nation will hold pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Face­book could comply with all applic­able elec­tion laws and avoid drench­ing voters in polit­ic­ally motiv­ated deceits. Other­wise it may face a repeat of the 2018 elec­tion, when a quarter of U.S. adults surveyed had deleted Face­book from their phones.

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