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Facebook bans (post-election) political ads

Posted 08.10.20

Shutting the stable door very much after the Trump horse has bolted. 

Facebook announced yesterday, Wednesday 7th October, sweeping changes to its advertising policy meaning it will stop running political ads from in the United States after election polls close on November 3rd in a move described by Senator Elizabeth Warren in a tweet as “performative” and an “attempt to avoid blame for misinformation on its platform”.

The changes, the company wrote in an official blog post were to “protect the integrity” of the upcoming election “by fighting foreign interference, misinformation, and voter suppression”.

The first question this raises is why wait? If, as Facebook itself suggests there is a threat of foreign interference in an election surely stop users from running advertising now. The tsunami of misinformation on the platform is having a real and immediate impact and is being used to confuse, misinform, and suppress voters in the US. A ban after the fact is surely shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Secondly, if Facebook perceives a risk to the integrity of the election in the US then why has it taken them so long to act. Why now? Less than a month until election day and with millions of Americans actively voting early has the platform decided to take this decision. Is it perhaps because the damage has already been done. As the New York Times reported Trump’s campaign finances are in a mess and despite having raked in more than $1billion since 2019 the campaign seems to be in a financial crunch in the run-up to the election.

The move to ban political ads after Nov 3rd is said to “reduce opportunities for confusion or abuse” following the closing of the polls. The moves follow steps Facebook took back in September to commit to not allow political ads the week leading up to the election, a move at the time that drew similar derision for not going far enough to stem the tide of misinformation and voter suppression in the lead-up to the most hotly contested election in modern living history.

Interestingly, Facebook hasn’t given a clear date on a potential return to political advertising in the US on the platform opening the door for a long-term ban or removal of this type of advertising from the platform completely.

“We are seeing unprecedented attacks on legitimate, reliable and secure voting methods designed to delegitimize the election,” Vanita Gupta, the President & CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said.

“These are important steps for Facebook to take to combat disinformation and the premature calling of election results before every vote is counted.”

 

Facebook has also announced they will flag content by candidates or campaigns that try to claim victory before the election results are official. In a Facebook post announcing the changes back in September Mark Zuckerberg said he was  “worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country,”.

Whether these steps will have any real impact should Trump lose the election is hard to know at this stage but what is clear is that Facebook, whether by wanting to or not, now realises it has a huge part to play in the safeguarding of free and fair elections, not just in the US but around the world. What it, and ultimately Mark Zuckerberg, decides to do with that power will have an impact not just on this election but potentially on how we all understand and experience the democratic process.

 

Tom Jarvis – Founder & Managing Director