Despite escalating pressure ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Facebook reaffirmed its freewheeling policy on political ads Thursday, saying it won’t ban them, won’t fact-check them and won’t limit how they can be targeted to specific groups of people.
Instead, Facebook said it will offer users slightly more control over how many political ads they see and make its online library of political ads easier to browse.
These steps appear unlikely to assuage critics — including politicians, activists, tech competitors and some of the company's own rank-and-file employees — who say that Facebook has too much power and that social media is warping democracy and undermining elections.
Google has decided to limit targeting of political ads, while Twitter is banning them outright.
Social media companies have been trying to tackle misinformation since it was learned that Russians bankrolled thousands of fake political ads during the 2016 elections to sow discord among Americans.
The fears go beyond foreign interference. In recent months, Facebook, Twitter and Google refused to remove a misleading video ad from President Donald Trump’s campaign that targeted Biden.
Facebook has repeatedly insisted it won't fact-check political ads. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued that “political speech is important” and that Facebook doesn't want to interfere with it. Critics say that stance gives politicians a license to lie.
TV stations and networks aren't required to fact-check ads either, but social media gives candidates a certain advantage: the ability to “microtarget" their ads.
For instance, they can use information gleaned from voter rolls, such as political affiliation, and try to reach just those people. Or they can narrow the target audience to those who have shown interest in guns, abortion or immigration, based on what the user has read or talked about on Facebook.
Google, the digital ads leader, decided in November to limit political-ad targeting to just three broad categories — sex, age and location, such as ZIP code.
Facebook said in a blog post Thursday that it considered limiting microtargeting for political ads. But it said it learned about the importance of such practices for reaching "key audiences” after talking with political campaigns from both major parties, political groups and nonprofits.
“Facebook and Twitter should not be making these decisions themselves,” said Daniel Kreiss, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina. “In the absence of any standards, you get the mess we're seeing now."