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Opinion

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.