Facebook defends policy allowing false political ads

David Klepper
Associated Press

Facebook defended its policy of not removing misleading or bogus political ads Thursday following withering criticism from congressional Democrats who said it could lead to election interference and voter suppression.

House Democrats, including Maxine Waters of California and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, denounced the policy during a hearing Wednesday in which founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook would “probably” allow candidates to buy ads making false claims about their opponents.

“In a democracy, people should decide what is credible, not tech companies,” the company wrote in a statement emailed to the Associated Press on Thursday. “That’s why – like other internet platforms and broadcasters - we don’t fact check ads from politicians.”

FILE - In this April 11, 2018, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Facebook said Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019, that it expects to name the first members of a new quasi-independent oversight board by year-end. The oversight panel, which the social network first discussed publicly last November, will rule on thorny content issues, such as when Facebook or Instagram posts constitute hate speech.

Facebook’s policy is similar to those at other internet platforms, reflecting the reluctance of big tech companies to police political content on their platforms.

Zuckerberg said Facebook will remove political advertisements that call for violence or seek to suppress voting. Facebook also said political ads from political action committees or advocacy groups would be subject to fact checks.

In addition, the company said Thursday that all ads are subject to the company’s community standards and ad policies.

“Given the sensitivity around political ads, we have considered whether we should ban them altogether,” the company said. “But political ads are important for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that use our platform to reach voters and their communities.”

Zuckerberg’s defense of the policy on Wednesday failed to satisfy Waters, who said it would give “anyone Facebook labels a politician a platform to lie, mislead and misinform the American people, which will also allow Facebook to sell more ads. The impact of this will be a massive voter suppression effort.”

Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg whether Facebook would allow a politician to plant intentionally false ads claiming their opponent supported something they did not. Zuckerberg responded “I think probably.”

Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts created an intentionally false Facebook ad claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed President Donald Trump for re-election.

During his exchange with Ocasio-Cortez Zuckerberg also made misleading comments about the company’s reliance on third-party fact checkers to evaluate false news stories posted to the site.

Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg why Facebook had made the conservative publication The Daily Caller one of its third-party fact checkers.

In actuality, the fact checking company is Check Your Fact, a subsidiary of The Daily Caller. The Daily Caller was founded by Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, who has been criticized for declaring white supremacy a “hoax.”

“We actually don’t appoint the independent fact-checkers,” Zuckerberg said in a response. “They go through an independent organization … that has a rigorous standard for who they allow to serve as a fact-checker.”

Not so, said Baybars Orsek, who directs that organization, the International Fact-Checking Network at the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Poynter Institute.

“It is a misrepresentation of the program,” he said, explaining that his network works to certify fact-checking organizations, including Check Your Fact.

Facebook requires its fact checkers to be network certified but has the final say on which fact checkers it works with.

“They make their decisions based on their priorities,” he said. “We do not appoint fact checkers to work with Facebook.”

The Associated Press is a participant in Facebook’s initiative to fact-check and identify misinformation being shared widely online on Facebook’s platform.