Facebook will still allow misinformation, microtargeting under new ad rules

Facebook on Thursday said that it does not plan to make any sweeping changes to its controversial political advertising policy ahead of the 2020 elections, maintaining that it will continue to allow misinformation in political ads and it will allow campaigns to microtarget those ads to small segments of the population. 

The social media giant instead opted to make smaller tweaks to its political ads policy following months of scrutiny and pressure from Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups who have criticized Facebook for allowing politicians to make false statements in advertisements.  

Facebook has spent months defending its current policy as an effort to promote free speech on its enormous platform, which is seen as the go-to destination for political campaigns trying to get through to key voters. But critics have responded that Facebook is setting up a dangerous precedent as politicians target potentially false information at small, specific populations using the company’s sophisticated targeting tools.

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Facebook now says it will soon unveil a feature that allows users to see fewer political ads, and it will offer users more details about the political advertisements they see.

Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management, wrote that Facebook is not “deaf” to the “criticism of Facebook’s position.” He said that Facebook will “continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections.”

The announcement puts the embattled social media company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, at odds with rivals Google and Twitter.

Twitter last year announced that it would ban political advertisements altogether, a move widely seen as an effort to differentiate itself from Facebook.

Google opted for a middle-ground approach, announcing that it would no longer allow advertisers to microtarget their political messaging. 

Facebook said it “considered” following Google’s lead but, “through extensive outreach and consultations we heard about the importance of these tools for reaching key audiences from a wide range of NGOs, non-profits, political groups and campaigns, including both Republican and Democratic committees in the US.”

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While Facebook weighed potential changes to its rules for political ads at the end of 2019, the Trump campaign, Republican National Committee, Democratic National Committee and other key political groups blasted Google’s limit on microtargeting, comparing the policy change to a form of voter suppression.

Limits on microtargeting significantly pare down political advertisers’ ability to get their messages in front of the audiences they want. Google and Facebook have rocketed to the top of the digital advertising market due to their ability to reach audiences with unprecedented specificity, making it easier than ever for campaigns to reach sensitive swing voters.

Experts, however, have warned that political advertising can have dangerous implications when it is cordoned off and seen by only small amounts of people, raising the likelihood that any misinformation in the ads will go unchecked.

The chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, Ellen Weintraub, hammered Facebook’s decision to continue microtargeting political ads, calling the company’s announcement on Thursday “weak.”

Weintraub has lambasted microtargeting because of its ability to direct political misinformation at susceptible groups with “little accountability.”  

“[Facebook’s] weak plan suggests the company has no idea how seriously it is hurting democracy,” Weintraub tweeted, urging the company to “go back to the drawing boards.” 

Facebook said it ultimately believes the U.S. government should make the final call around online political advertising, a new and relatively unregulated terrain.

“Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies, which is why we are arguing for regulation that would apply across the industry,” Leathern wrote.

He said in the absence of regulation, companies have been forced to carve out their own policies, and Facebook’s revolves around free expression.

“We have based ours on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public,” Leathern wrote.

— This report was updated at 10:26 a.m.

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