Facebook is considering a prohibition on political ads on its platforms, according to multiple media reports. If the social media giant made such a move, it would be a significant about-face to the company’s long-held laissez-faire approach to political ads and political speech more broadly, coming just months ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections.
Facebook declined to comment on a potential ban of political advertising.
The company, which says 3 billion people use its apps monthly, is deliberating whether to ban political ads, as first reported by Bloomberg News. Facebook has kicked around the idea since late 2019 and at this point has not reached a definitive decision on how to proceed, according to reports citing anonymous sources.
In contrast to Facebook’s hands-off approach, Twitter last year said it would ban political advertising (while still allowing some issue-based ads). “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted last fall. And Google changed its political-advertising policies to disallow microtargeting based on criteria like political affiliation or voting records and said explicitly that it would block ads that include false statements.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly expressed the view that internet companies shouldn’t “censor” political speech, including ads, even if it is false.
“I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” Zuckerberg said in a speech at Georgetown University in October 2019. “I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100% true.”
Facebook has drawn fire for accepting an ad bought on behalf of Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign that asserted without evidence that former VP Joe Biden gave the Ukrainian attorney general a $1 billion bribe to not investigate his son. And Facebook’s failure to take action on inflammatory comments and voting disinformation posted by Trump was cited by independent civil-rights auditors in a report this week as among the “vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”
Last month, the company began letting Facebook and Instagram users in the U.S. disable political ads. That includes “all social issue, electoral or political ads from candidates, Super PACs or other organizations that have the ‘Paid for by’ political disclaimer on them,” according to Naomi Gleit, Facebook’s VP of product management and social impact. Also last month, Facebook removed ads from Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign because they used Nazi imagery, which the company said violated its policy against “organized hate.”
In terms of revenue impact, a Facebook prohibition on political advertising would not make much of a dent (total sales grew 18% in Q1, to $17.74 billion). Since 2018, Donald Trump’s campaign has spent more than $55 million in advertising on Facebook and Joe Biden’s campaign has spent more than $25 million, per the New York Times.
Instead, a Facebook ban on political advertising would be mainly a PR move to persuade marketers (and users) that it’s taking good-faith actions to address concerns about abuse of its powerful platforms. Hundreds of advertisers have joined a boycott of Facebook under the #StopHateForProfit campaign, calling for the company to more aggressively block hate speech and misinformation.
Critics say that even if Facebook were to stop accepting political advertising, that wouldn’t fix the problems it has demonstrated in amplifying polarizing and false information.
“We said it seven months ago to @Google and we will say it again to @Facebook: a blunt ads ban is not a real solution to disinformation on your platform,” Nell Thomas, CTO of the Democratic National Committee, wrote in a tweet Friday in response to the Bloomberg News report. Thomas previously worked as a data scientist at Facebook.
During the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook was targeted by Russian disinformation attacks in an attempt to influence voting. In addition, data on millions of Facebook users improperly ended up in the hands of Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct U.K. political consulting firm that used the information to target voters on behalf of Donald Trump’s campaign.
Since then, Facebook claims it has taken numerous steps to curb bad actors. It has launched a Voting Information Center to provide “authoritative” information about elections, and is prompting users to register to vote. And two weeks ago, Zuckerberg said the company will start adding warning labels to posts by politicians that would otherwise violate its policies if those are deemed to be in the “public interest” — a policy Twitter adopted a year ago.