The company also said that it would label posts by any candidate or campaign that tries to declare victory before the final results are in, directing people to the official results from Reuters. It will do the same for any posts that try to delegitimize the outcome of the election — for example, a claim that voting by mail could lead to fraud. It has also started to limit users’ ability to forward articles on its Messenger platform to large groups of people.
“The US elections are just two months away, and with Covid-19 affecting communities across the country, I’m concerned about the challenges people could face when voting,” Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post Thursday morning. “I’m also 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. This election is not going to be business as usual. We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”
But the intense political stakes for the company were immediately underscored Thursday morning, as the Trump campaign blasted the company for its new policies.
“In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, President Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America,” said Samantha Zager, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary. “When millions of voters will be making their decisions, the President will be silenced by the Silicon Valley Mafia, who will at the same time allow corporate media to run their biased ads to swing voters in key states.”
The move announced Thursday by Facebook does not ban the president, who has nearly 31 million followers on the social network, from the defending himself but rather limits new ads by all politicians in the final days before Nov. 3.
There was no immediate comment from the campaign of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The moves are unlikely to end criticism that the social network plays a harmful role in the democratic process. Some experts have called for removing political advertising entirely, an option Facebook once considered. But the moves drew initial praise from outside experts and others who had pushed the company in recent months to more forcefully tackle election misinformation and efforts to suppress voting.
“It’s a strange feeling to read something by Mark Zuckerberg and say, ‘Yup, yup, yup,'” said Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit group that combats misinformation. “I’m pretty excited by it.”
She and others, however, warned that Facebook’s enforcement, which has been criticized in the past as lax and uneven, will matter as much as its revamped policies.
Top Facebook officials, including Zuckerberg himself, worked directly with civil rights groups and others in developing the new policies in recent weeks, said Vanita Gupta, resident of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, a Washington-based umbrella group. One key sticking point was whether Facebook’s news policies would go beyond explicit efforts to suppress voting to tackle more subtle efforts.
Zuckerberg’s post Thursday morning dealt with this directly, saying Facebook was “now expanding this policy to include implicit misrepresentations about voting too, like ‘I hear anybody with a driver’s license gets a ballot this year’, because it might mislead you about what you need to do to get a ballot, even if that wouldn’t necessarily invalidate your vote by itself.”
Gupta said that issue had been “a huge sticking point” in discussions with the company and was pleased to see this concession. She called the new policy “a significant expansion that would also reach the president’s posts unambiguously. The test will come in how the company enforces this moving forward.”
Rashad Robinson, executive director of civil rights group Color of Change and a fierce critic of Facebook, said, “I’m glad that they’re making these changes. This is important. And I also think, with Facebook, it’s always about enforcement. Can they actually enforce these policies and will they actually enforce them?”
Facebook’s ban goes beyond ads placed by the two presidential campaigns and sweeps up a broader set of posts classified by the social network as pertaining to politics, elections or social issues. Facebook says social issues are “sensitive topics that are heavily debated, may influence the outcome of an election or result in/relate to existing or proposed legislation.”
Democratic campaigns and activists, even as they clamor for Facebook to clamp down on misinformation, have long argued that limits to the company’s ad technologies will end up hamstringing down-ballot and first-time candidates who have not built a robust organic audience on digital platforms. Limits so close to the election, they also hold, will most directly affect get-out-the-vote efforts, which are seen as crucial to Democratic victories that traditionally depend on higher turnout. Still, ads placed in advance of the week-long blackout that encourage users to vote can remain active, and campaigns can boost or modify these posts through the election.
Facebook’s role in spreading political misinformation has been a hotly debated issue since the discovery that false news reports and a Russian operation to influence American voters ran rampant on the platform during the 2016 election. The controversy triggered political backlash and a scramble within the company to establish new policies and systems to avoid a repeat in 2020. But the company’s moves — and also several policies it considered but ultimately rejected — have triggered backlash from politicians and campaigns.
The loudest voice has been Trump, who has blasted several proposals as stifling free speech, especially among conservatives. When news reports surfaced in July about Facebook’s discussions about a political ad moratorium near election day, Trump’s campaign blasted the idea as “an egregious stifling of political speech.”
The issue of political advertising is particularly sensitive because of the central role Facebook played in Trump’s 2016 campaign, whose top officials repeatedly have boasted of their ability to use the company’s sophisticated advertising tools to gain advantage over Democrat Hillary Clinton. It’s a view also widely shared within Facebook, whose officials have marveled at Trump’s effective use of their platform.
For this election cycle, Trump already has spent $74.7 million on Facebook, significantly more than Biden’s $46.5 million, according to Facebook’s Ad Library. It shows a similar split in a recent seven-day span, with Trump spending $9.1 million compared to Biden’s $5.4 million between Aug. 26 and Sept. 1.
Months of vocal complaints by Trump about the supposed dangers of mail-in voting — which numerous states have moved to expand amid the covid-19 pandemic but which the president has claimed is a threat to election security — have triggered consultation among social media companies and disinformation experts about the possibility such claims would cause chaos on Election Day and its immediate aftermath, especially if there is not a clear winner.
“This moment, more so than any others, Facebook knows that if they get it wrong, the company might be imperiled,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “The public is watching very carefully.”
A person familiar with the Facebook’s thinking, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said the company was trying to find middle ground. Facebook is aware that campaigns target their strongest and potentially misleading attacks for the few days before the election, when a larger share of the electorate is paying attention.
“This gives campaigns the tools to make their closing arguments and run aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts,” said Facebook spokesman Tom Reynolds. “But it’s also providing unprecedented transparency in the critical days before the election.”
Thursday’s announcement applies only to new advertising, not to previously approved ad campaigns. Facebook has also resisted widespread calls to fact-check political ads.
The efforts show the degree to which the company is gaming out potential election-night scenarios and outcomes that extend beyond the electoral contest.
Zuckerberg views the election as unprecedented and is deeply concerned about the integrity of the contest being compromised, according to people who work with him who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his thinking. He sees it as a critical test, they said.
It is a follow-up to one the company was largely viewed as having failed in 2016, after which it disclosed that Russian operatives had spread disinformation messages to millions of U.S. voters in an attempt to sow division and support President Trump
The company said it would work with election officials to remove false claims about polling conditions in the last 72 hours of the campaign and after Election Day until there is a clear winner.
Facebook’s specifically will remove posts that use the fear of covid-19 to discourage voting, an issue that Trump raised in a tweet Sunday in which he claimed that drop boxes installed to encourage mail-in voting “are not Covid sanitized.” Twitter labeled the post as violating its policies on election integrity, requiring those who want to view the tweet to take an extra step to see it.
Zuckerberg’s post Thursday morning said, “Given the unique circumstances of this election, it’s especially important that people have accurate information about the many ways to vote safely, and that Covid-19 isn’t used to scare people into not exercising their right to vote.”
Trump’s claims about mail-in voting and other election issues — widely disputed by election experts and independent fact checkers — have been a particular source of concern for civil rights groups, which consider it an effort to suppress votes from Blacks and other groups. They have expressed bitter frustration about Facebook’s efforts so far in this area, portraying the company as repeatedly failing to act in ways capable of neutralizing the threat to voting rights despite years of close consultation on such issues.
“The steps Facebook is taking are welcome,” said said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks disinformation. “Especially welcome is the commitment to promote only official results and downgrade or remove any content that misleads the outcome of the election when there is bound to be confusion in the hours, days, and possibly weeks after election night. But keep in mind, misinformation is designed to seep through the cracks and game the rules.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed.