At least 250 Facebook employees signed a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticizing the company’s hands-off policy against fact-checking ads posted by politicians.
“We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny,” said Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications, in a speech explaining the company’s position at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., last month.
The policy has been in place for more than a year, he said.
Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing, the employees’ letter maintains.
“Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy,” it states.
The letter suggests these actions to resolve the issue:
- Hold political ads to the same standard as other ads;
- Design political ads to differentiate them from organic posts;
- Restrict the use of Facebook’s advanced targeting tools for political ads;
- Broaden the observation of election silence periods;
- Impose spend caps applying jointly to both individual politicians and PACs running ads; and
- Have clearer policies for political ads.
Reaction to the Letter
“We applaud the Facebook employees who had the courage to share their concerns with their leadership,” said LaShawn Warren, SVP of campaigns and programs with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The policy “could lead to massive voter suppression and result in irreparable damage to our democracy,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “We urge Facebook’s leadership to reevaluate their position and close the loophole for politicians.”
The employees’ comments have drawn strong support from Democratic lawmakers and others. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, for one, described them as “stunning.”
Stunning comments from Facebook employees. “It is common for political advertisers to upload voter rolls (which are publicly available in order to reach voters) & then use behavioral tracking tools (such as pixel) & ad engagement to refine ads further.” https://t.co/RmfPS2ieY3
— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) October 28, 2019
Meanwhile, as a means of dramatizing the policy’s damaging potential, San Francisco-based marketer and political activist Adriel Hampton registered as a candidate in California’s forthcoming gubernatorial election so that he can run false ads on Facebook about President Trump, as well as Facebook and Twitter executives.
“If he’s a legitimate candidate, he has to be allowed the same leeway as any candidate,” said Mike Jude, research manager, digital health, at Frost & Sullivan.
Separately, CloutHub, a social media platform launched earlier this year as an app on iOS and Android, announced it would offer space on its platform for airing political views.
“Individual user comments will not be vetted for the purpose of determining truth,” CloutHub CEO Jeff Brain told the E-Commerce Times. “The platform should not be playing judge.”
CloutHub will draw the line only where comments target an individual or a group of people in a racially derogatory way, or generalize about a religion or group of people, Brain said.
Candidates and supporters of ballot measures who buy a promotional page on the CloutHub site must comply with all disclosure and truth-in-advertising laws. The page will be open to comments from the public.
The Thorny Issue of Politics
Facebook has been very careful about what role to play in the political debate during the runup to the next U.S. presidential election, Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research, told the E-Commerce Times.
Dave Willner, Facebook’s former head of standards, has criticized the exception for politicians.
Politicians “should not get a blank check to lie, incite, spread hate, or oppress groups of people,” more than 40 civil rights and other organizations maintained in a letter to Zuckerberg.
The Trump campaign spent more than US$1.6 billion on Facebook ads between Sept. 25 and Oct. 1, many of which reportedly included false or misleading claims.
Political discourse has special protections under the First Amendment to the Constitution that have been affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, Frost’s Jude told the E-Commerce Times.
“Stripped of all the legalese, the pronouncement is that when it comes to political speech, it’s hands off,” he said.
Such protections arguably might not be required when a social media platform user posts political content, Jude mused. “After all, you agree to let social media sites censor your content as a condition of use.”
Censorship or Fair Use?
Many conservatives have labeled efforts by Facebook and Twitter to restrict posts on their platforms as “censorship.”
However, “we disagree with the White House, GOP lawmakers and any other person who claims Facebook, Twitter, etc., are engaged in censorship of viewpoints,” said Travis Burk, spokesperson for The Competitive Enterprise Institute.
“Only the government has the power to censor,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
It’s a question of whether we treat social networks as media, Constellation’s Wang told the E-Commerce Times. “For example, are the walled sections of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times media or a social network?”
Trouble in the Offing
The employees’ bid to set company policy “is very dangerous, and the path is through unionization — which is coming back at the moment — so the game being played has very high stakes,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
The letter “is focusing regulators on the company,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “You don’t want this kind of visibility during an election year.”
It could be argued that Facebook is between a rock and a hard place, but Facebook’s executives “have created their own situation, because they have not demonstrated themselves to be consistent in their application of rules or in the way they handle privacy,” said CloutHub’s Brain. “They have a general credibility and trust problem.”