Facebook is trying just two months before the U.S. election to better police political misinformation on its platform, a tacit acknowledgement that the social network is rife with falsehoods that could sway the vote.
The company said Thursday it will restrict new political ads in the week before the election and remove posts that convey misinformation about COVID-19 and voting. It will also attach links to official results to posts from candidates and campaigns that declare victory prematurely.
“This election is not going to be business as usual. We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on Thursday. “That means helping people register and vote, clearing up confusion about how this election will work and taking steps to reduce the chances of violence and unrest.”
Activists hailed the new policies but said the onus will be on Facebook to enforce them. And some experts were skeptical that they’ll really make a difference.
Siva Vaidhyanathan, a Facebook expert at the University of Virginia, said the company proved once again its incapacity to effectively snuff out dangerous misinformation last week when it failed to remove posts by right-wing militia organizers urging supporters with rifles to converge on Kenosha, Wis.
“Facebook’s biggest problem has always been enforcement,” he said. “Even when it creates reasonable policies that seem well-meaning it gets defeated by its own scale. So I am not optimistic that this will be terribly effective.”
Concerns over civil unrest
Facebook and other social media companies are being scrutinized over how they handle misinformation, given issues with U.S. President Donald Trump and other candidates posting false information and Russia’s ongoing attempts to interfere in U.S. politics.
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Facebook has long been criticized for not fact-checking political ads or limiting how they can be targeted at small groups of people.
With the nation divided and election results potentially taking days or weeks to be finalized, Zuckerberg said there could be an “increased risk of civil unrest across the country.”
Civil rights groups said they directly pitched Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives to make many of the changes announced Thursday.
“These are really significant steps, but everything is going to depend on the enforcement,” said Vanita Gupta, who was head of the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and now leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “I think they’re going to be tested on it pretty soon.”
In July, Trump refused to publicly commit to accepting the results of the upcoming election, as he scoffed at polls that showed him lagging behind Democratic rival Joe Biden.
Trump also has made false claims that increased use of mail-in voting because of the coronavirus pandemic would allow for voter fraud.
That has raised concern about the willingness of Trump and his supporters to abide by election results.
Under the new measures, Facebook says it will prohibit politicians and campaigns from running new election ads in the week before the election. However, they can still run existing ads and change how they are targeted. And many voters are expected to vote by mail well ahead of election day.
Trump campaign spokesperson Samantha Zager criticized the ban on new political ads, saying it would prevent Trump from defending himself on the platform in the last seven days of the presidential campaign.
Posts with obvious misinformation on voting policies and the coronavirus pandemic will also be removed. Users can only forward articles to a maximum of five others on Messenger, Facebook’s messaging app.
The company will also work with Reuters to provide official election results and make the information available both on its platform and with push notifications.
Internal dissent may have prompted action
After being caught off-guard by Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others companies put safeguards in place to prevent it from happening again.
That includes taking down posts, groups and accounts that engage in “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour” — defined by Facebook as “when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they’re doing” — and strengthening verification procedures for political ads.
Last year, Twitter banned political ads altogether.
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Zuckerberg said Facebook had removed more than 100 networks worldwide engaging in such interference over the last few years.
“Just this week, we took down a network of 13 accounts and two pages that were trying to mislead Americans and amplify division,” he said.
But experts and Facebook’s own employees say the measures are not enough to stop the spread of misinformation — including from politicians and in the form of edited videos.
That internal dissent among Facebook employees might have helped influence Zuckerberg’s decision to do something, said Joan Donovan, a disinformation researcher at Harvard University.
“This is a huge about-face for Facebook in this moment, because for so long they said they were unwilling to moderate political speech and now at this stage they are drawing very sharp lines, and I think that’s because their company cannot survive another four-year scandal,” she said.
Facebook had previously drawn criticism for its ads policy, which cited freedom of expression as the reason for letting politicians like Trump post false information about voting.