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Facebook will continue allowing untruthful political ads, claiming lawmakers, not private companies, should regulate them

Facebook will not limit the targeting of, or fact check, political ads, even if those ads are untrue. The decision comes despite mounting pressure to change its policy in order to fight misinformation, like competitors have done. In October, Twitter banned political advertising outright, while the following month, Facebook’s biggest advertising rival, Google, limited the way political ads can be targeted.

The social media giant said it decided not to stamp out political ads that lie because it’s uncomfortable with the idea of private companies making such decisions. Instead, a blog post published yesterday explained, Facebook users can instead opt to simply “see fewer political and social issue ads”.

“There has been much debate in recent months about political advertising online and the different approaches that companies have chosen to take. While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads,” director of product management, Rob Leathern, said.

“Unlike Google, we have chosen not to limit targeting of these ads. We considered doing so, but through extensive outreach and consultations we heard about the importance of these tools for reaching key audiences from a wide range of NGOs, non-profits, political groups and campaigns, including both Republican and Democratic committees in the US.

“Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies, which is why we are arguing for regulation that would apply across the industry. … Frankly, we believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this the better.”

When Google decided to limit targeting of political ads late last year, it did so to “improve voters’ confidence” in both the democratic process and ads viewed on Google.

Instead, Facebook’s policy allows for politicians to communicate with voters “warts and all”, according to Leathern, and those messages should be “scrutinised and debated in public”. He said this does not mean politicians can say whatever they like in ads, because they must abide by Facebook’s Community Standards, which, for example, ban hate speech.

However, The New York Times cited an example in which a Facebook ad – which made false accusations about Joe Biden and his son – was posted by the Trump campaign and went viral. Biden’s camp asked Facebook to remove the ad, and that request was refused.

The company’s former chief security officer also weighed in, taking to Twitter to say he is “disappointed” with the decision, and claiming that both media and Facebook’s framing of the issue as partisan means the platform won’t be proactive.

Leathern said protecting the integrity of elections will continue to be a priority for Facebook.

“We recognise this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position. We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections,” he added.

The transparency measures introduced in lieu of an updated policy hinge on what Facebook calls its Ad Library – an archive of current and previous campaigns politicians have run on Facebook and Instagram. Leathern said changes to that library will improve transparency and accountability by allowing users to choose to see fewer political ads, and see how many people an advertiser wanted to reach by viewing the ‘audience size’. Those updates will be rolled out in the first quarter of this year, in all markets where “Paid for by” disclaimers appear on ads.

“We first launched the Ad Library in May 2018 and over the past several months we have spoken to dozens of political campaigns, activists, NGOs, nonprofits and volunteers about our policies for political ads,” Leathern said.

“Two themes we heard were that first, people want more transparency over who is using ads to try to influence voters and second, they want more control over the ads they see.”

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