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If Facebook Can Combat Coronavirus Misinformation, Why Does the Company Remain Apathetic About Political Ads?

The company faces questions from shareholders at its May annual meeting about the risk Facebook’s lax political ad policy poses to the company, its users, and the world.

By Rachel Curley

Zuckerberg and Social Media Icons

“Hairdryers could be used for coronavirus prevention” claims a Facebook video with 2.6 million views  that was labeled by the company as false information about the global coronavirus pandemic. Managing the spread of misinformation on the platform is critical for keeping people safe and making sure they have access to up- do- date, verified public health information. So far, Facebook has rolled out some new minor policies like fact checking ads, prohibiting content boasting snake oil cures to coronavirus, and giving the World Health Organization free ad credits to make sure that its 2.6 billion users are not exposed to misinformation.

While the company can and should do more to combat misinformation, Facebook has demonstrated that it has powerful tools to shield users from content that is harmful or misleading. But what about political ads that spread lies or that hide the true source paying for the ad? Despite Russia’s campaign to spread chaos in democratic elections around the world and the enormous online disinformation apparatus created by President Trump, Facebook makes the high- minded claim that it’s protecting free speech by doing little about political misinformation. What it’s really doing is pandering to powerful political interests, particularly those with deep pockets, at the expense of the long- term health of the company and our democracy.

Last year, Facebook publicly announced that it would not impose the same standards of content moderation and truthfulness on political ads and politicians’ posts spread on the platform as it does for other content. This announcement adds to the woefully inadequate transparency measures the platform has in place to help watchdogs understand how political advertisers are targeting voters to bring bad actors to light. CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended the company’s policy saying that the company should not be an arbiter of speech, contrasting the company’s position with governments like China that censor their citizens speech online. However, vetting the veracity of content is standard for all media companies regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and truth in advertising laws are also long-standing guidelines for social media companies.

Further, what Zuckerberg’s argument fails to account for is the fact that Facebook is not a neutral participant. Facebook is a corporation that rakes in enormous profit selling ads. Therefore, what types of ads are being sold, how they are performing, who is seeing them, who is paying for them, and what information silos they create for other ad revenue are all important to Facebook. However, the company should be more carefully assessing what risk this ad ecosystem poses to the company itself and society more broadly.

Further undermining the idea that Facebook is somehow neutral in the political misinformation war is the way the company has positioned itself as a political player. The company has spent $86 million lobbying Washington since 2009 and recent reports indicate that the tech giant is setting up a Washington influence machine featuring a board member who has built a career dismantling this country’s campaign finance laws. Conservative publications including Fox, Breitbart, and Shapiro’s Daily Wire were among the top publishers on Facebook as of May 2019 and Facebook executives like Vice President Nick Clegg continue to allow the company’s powerful right-wing staff – like their public policy head, Joel Kaplan, and head of global elections, Katie Harbath – to make the company’s policies increasingly friendly toward President Trump. Facebook is under significant regulatory scrutiny from members of Congress and regulators about anti-trust implications, civil rights violations, and election interference, all of which pose risk to the reputation of the company. So, it’s not a shock they’re trying to curry favor with politicians and the dark money groups that support them by letting politicians and their campaigns say whatever they want on the platform.

The stakes for political misinformation and disinformation spreading across Facebook could not be higher. Almost four years out from the 2016 election, we now know the depth of the voter suppression efforts launched on social media platforms targeted at communities of color. “Democracy itself may be at stake in the targeted use of paid false and misleading political advertisements,” warns a shareholder resolution put forth at the company this year by Harrington Investments directly addressing this issue. “There is also a larger threat to the company… regarding whether the Company’s license to operate will be at stake if the company’s practices undermine free and fair elections by an informed electorate,” the proposal goes on to state. Facebook’s own employees- more than 200 of them- signed a letter detailing some of the ways the company should handle political ads and hold them to the same standard as other ads on the platform. These included creating stronger design measures to better distinguish political ads from other content, restricting targeting for political ads, imposing a silent period ahead of elections, and imposing spending caps for politicians.

If the company wants to assure its investors and users that Facebook is a safe investment it needs to be honest about the reputational risk it faces from the rampant spread of political misinformation on the site and the effect that misinformation has on our elections. Further resolutions from investors up for a vote at Facebook’s upcoming annual meeting regarding an equal vote per share, an independent board chair, electing board members by a majority, and appointing an independent human and civil rights expert to the board demonstrate that the scope of concern from Facebook’s shareholders extends beyond its reckless political ad policy. If you own shares in Facebook, vote your shares in favor of proposals 7, 8 and 9 or direct your advisor to vote your proxy in favor of these resolutions.

If you can’t vote at Facebook, call your member of Congress and express your support for the Honest Ads Act, which is a part of a sweeping package of democracy reforms called the For the People Act that would hold social media companies accountable for shady political ads online. Until Facebook proves that it has robust political ad policies, users should carefully consider election- related content and fact check it against academic and journalistic sources.

When corporations have outsized influence over our elections, democracies lose. Facebook should be in the business of promoting honest, robust civic discourse for the benefit of its users, shareholders, and democracies the world over.