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Facebook on Allowing Political Ads with Disinformation: ‘A Benefit to See What Politicians Are Saying’

Just one day after a report highlighting an ad for United States President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign based on a claim that Facebook’s own fact-checking partners had already debunked, the social media platform is claiming that allowing politicians to run advertisements containing disinformation on its platform is justified because it benefits the electorate.

According to the Popular Information newsletter, the Trump advertisement claims — falsely — that former Vice President Joe Biden “promised $1 billion” to Ukraine in exchange for the firing of a prosecutor investigating Biden’s son Hunter Biden. The ad was part of spending totaling $1.5 million by the Trump re-election campaign to promote itself on the site, and surfaced less than a month after Trump met with Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg at the White House.

But the anti-Biden claim had already been rated false by FactCheck.org and Politifact, two sites that are part of a partnership program launched in 2016 which Facebook claimed would penalize sites pushing misinformation and disinformation. However, as recently as July 2019, FactCheck.org director Eugene Kiely said that his site had not “really received anything from Facebook that would provide evidence one way or the other to [its] effectiveness.”

Popular Information reported that Facebook’s policy regarding “false and misleading content” went from barring “ads, landing pages, and business practices must not contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods” to covering “ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.”

Facebook told reporter Judd Legum that advertising from politicians and political parties are not subject to their fact-checking guidelines, but that ads submitted by “other entities” do not enjoy that exemption. However, a Facebook spokesperson told us on October 4 2019 that the exemption for politicians has been company policy for more than a year and allows for their speech “to be debated and scrutinized out in the open.”

The spokesperson added that Facebook believed that “it’s a benefit to people to see what politicians are saying, rather than hiding it, where they can be accountable for what they say and do.” They also denied that the Trump-Zuckerberg meeting had anything to do with their policy regarding the issue.

Reached for comment, Legum told us via email:

Facebook is not telling the truth.

The language of the policy changed — and changed substantially — as outlined in my piece. They do not dispute they changed the language of their written policy, which is the normal definition of a policy change.

Facebook claims that it did not change their policy because they didn’t ENFORCE the old policy. This may or may not be true. I’m not privy to how they enforce it with respect to every violation.

But I know they changed their written policy and that’s what I reported. That’s also what advertisers can consult to know what the policy is.

Politicians may have been ineligible for fact-checking for over a year but until last week the “false or misleading” prohibition contained no reference to their fact-checking policy. Any “false or misleading” content in ads was prohibited, per their own policy, until last week.

Facebook’s position is effectively that their written policy is meaningless and their actually policy is whatever internal policy they are enforcing that is not public. Then, if they change their written policy to match this secret internal policy it’s not a change. It’s just spin, pure and simple.

We contacted the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which operates Factcheck.org as well as the nonprofit Poynter Institute (which owns PolitiFact) seeking comment about Facebook’s exemption for political ads containing disinformation.

The company is also partnering with the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) on a “training program” teaching SPJ members how to use the platform. When asked about Facebook’s stance on ad-based misinformation ethics committee chair Lynn Walsh, who also supervises the training program, told us:

Our training program is to train journalists how to best use Facebook tools. Facebook continues to be a top way people find news, so journalists should know how to post content on the platform. We have the training program/partnership with Facebook so we can help journalists best share their stories with their community in a space their community is consuming news. Facebook is not a news organization and is not creating the content. While we do not like to see misinformation spread online, SPJ does not tell organizations what content to allow and what content to delete from their websites.

An SPJ spokesperson, Zoe Berg, told us that the group does receive funding from Facebook as part of the partnership, which she said allows the program to remain free and to hold training events at newsrooms and college campuses around the US.

Update, October 11, 10:06 a.m. PST: Updated the story with comments from the Society of Professional Journalists.