Tech

Sen. Warner asks Mark Zuckerberg to reconsider Facebook's policy that allows false political ads

Key Points
  • Sen. Mark Warner's letter to Zuckerberg calls for Facebook to hold itself to the same standard as local TV broadcasters.
  • Facebook's current policy allows politicians and elected officials to run false and misleading advertising on the platform.
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) questions David Marcus, head of Facebook's Calibra (digital wallet service), during testimony before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on "Examining Facebook's Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations" in Washington, July 16, 2019.
Erin Scott | Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg has left D.C., but politicians want more from him.

Sen. Mark Warner wants sent a letter to the Facebook CEO late Monday asking him to reconsider his company's policy that allows politicians and elected officials to run false and misleading paid advertisements on the platform.

"While Facebook's advertising rules have long prohibited ads with 'deceptive, false, or misleading content' — relying on its 'third-party fact-checkers' to identify violations of these policies — Facebook subsequently revised these rules to exempt political ads run by politicians through a policy that withholds such ads from third-party fact-checker review," Warner wrote in the letter.

The Virginia Democrat went on to criticize Facebook's protection by the Communications Act, which Warner said prohibits national broadcasters from rejecting or modifying qualified federal candidates' ads, regardless of their accuracy. The senator argued that Facebook should hold itself to the same standard as broadcasters, specifically citing CNN.

"In making strides not to continue contributing to the coarsening of our political debate, and the undermining of our public institutions, at a minimum, Facebook should at least adhere to the same norms of other traditional media companies when it comes to political advertising," Warner's letter says. "Therefore, the industry norms Facebook should heed would more aptly be those followed by not by local broadcasters, but by cable networks."

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the company received the letter, and directed CNBC to links of Zuckerberg's interview with NBC News' Lester Holt last week and to his speech on free expression at Georgetown University earlier this month.

Facebook's policy to allow politicians and elected officials to promote false and misleading ads came under scrutiny earlier this month after the Trump 2020 campaign promoted a series of ads containing false information about his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. The topic was much discussed earlier this month when Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to testify on Facebook's plans to launch the libra cryptocurrency.

Warner is among the members of Congress most active in the movement to regulate Big Tech companies. He has written and introduced a number of bills on the subject including the Honest Ads Act, which is meant to prevent foreign interference in future elections and improve the transparency of online political advertisements.

Read Warner's full letter here:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I write you in the context of an ongoing debate about the impact of social media on our public institutions and on our political discourse. In the last two weeks, one facet of this debate has been the extent to which platforms like Facebook allow politicians to spread deliberate falsehoods through paid political advertising. While Facebook's advertising rules have long prohibited ads with "deceptive, false, or misleading content" – relying on its "third-party fact-checkers" to identify violations of these policies – Facebook subsequently revised these rules to exempt political ads run by politicians through a policy that withholds such ads from third-party fact-checker review.

The consequence of these policies came into sharp focus early this month, after a series of ads purchased by the Trump 2020 campaign containing falsehoods about former Vice President Biden were found in Facebook's political ad archive. I appreciate that these ads were discovered only as a result of Facebook's decision to voluntarily implement some of the Honest Ads Act, bipartisan legislation I drafted with Senator Klobuchar and the late Senator John McCain, which has allowed researchers, opposing campaigns, and journalists to track political advertising on Facebook. However, Facebook's refusal to provide targeting information used for political ads, and widely-reported defects in the API preventing large-scale data analysis, underscore that piecemeal, optional steps by individual companies are insufficient to protect our democracy from bad actors exploiting social media; I will continue to press to pass the Honest Ads Act into law and press your company to fully comply with the provisions in the Act.

Transparency, however, is but one value undergirding our nation's political discourse. A whole host of norms and laws have structured the public sphere – the space within civil society in which we debate important political, social, and cultural issues. The public sphere has been shaped by a mix of legal rules (traditionally based in communications and campaign finance laws) and norms that have worked to promote transparency, public deliberation and debate, openness, diversity of opinion, and accountability.

Undeniably, these norms have come under major strain in recent years, from a variety of different directions. Among political actors, norms of decency and probity – strained in the best of times – have been routinely flouted. This is particularly evident in today's digital age. As an avid user of digital media (and shrewd practitioner of how to exploit it), President Trump has in many ways helped to undermine these norms – and other candidates have chosen to follow suit.

But it is also true that these norms have been undermined at least in part because of the nature, architecture, policies, and operation of platforms like Facebook. The public nature of broadcast television, radio, print, cable, and satellite ensured a level of accountability for traditional political advertisements. In addition to being broadly accessible to the electorate, these communications are accessible to the press, fact-checkers, and political opponents through media monitoring services that track broadcast content across television and radio markets. As a result, strong disincentives exist for a candidate to disseminate materially false, inflammatory, or contradictory messages to the public. By contrast, social media platforms tout their ability to target portions of the electorate with direct, ephemeral advertisements—often on the basis of private information the platform has on individual users, facilitating political advertisements that are contradictory, racially or socially inflammatory, or materially false, without the same constraints as more traditional communications mediums, and without affording opposing candidates an equal opportunity to respond directly in front of the same targeted audience.

The consequences of Facebook's decision not to apply the same standards to political advertisements on its platform are potentially enormous: Today, 79 percent of online Americans – 68 percent of all Americans – are Facebook users. Over 160 million Americans use Facebook on a daily basis, spending an average of 35 minutes on the site each day. By contrast, the most-watched television broadcast in U.S. history – Super Bowl XLIX – was viewed by 114 million Americans. In the 2016 election, spending on digital advertising reached $1.4 billion, a 789 percent increase from the $159 million spent in 2012. The use of social media – and the internet more broadly – to inform the decisions of the electorate only heightens the need for scrutiny of the ads placed on those sites.

In making strides not to continue contributing to the coarsening of our political debate, and the undermining of our public institutions, at a minimum, Facebook should at least adhere to the same norms of other traditional media companies when it comes to political advertising. In defending its refusal to remove false political advertisements by candidates, Facebook has pointed to provisions of the Communications Act that prohibit broadcast licensees from rejecting or modifying candidate ads, regardless of their accuracy. This comparison is inapt. Broadcast licensees face legal requirements to run these ads – in addition to a range of other obligations – as a condition of holding federal spectrum licenses. The prohibition to reject or modify the ad accompanies a statutory obligation to air ads of qualified federal candidates in the first place.

A more appropriate comparison for a platform like Facebook would be cable networks, which (like Facebook) face no such prohibition on rejecting demonstrably false advertisements from political candidates – nor are they bound by related obligations such as rules on advertising rates and reasonable access requirements. Therefore, the industry norms Facebook should heed would more aptly be those followed by not by local broadcasters, but by cable networks. Notably, CNN refused to air the same demonstrably false ad Facebook allowed the Trump campaign to run. To the extent Facebook takes inspiration from the norms of local broadcasters, it should likewise require that candidates provide documented substantial of claims made in their advertisements.

Facebook's apparent lack of foresight or concern for the possible damages caused by this policy concerns me. Thus, I am asking for a response from the company regarding the details of this policy and efforts to avert these negative effects:

· Under this policy, how is Facebook defining "politician"? What steps have you taken to prevent abuse of this definition?

· Mr. Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of Global Affairs, has noted that this policy has exceptions for speech which "can lead to real-world violence and harm" or "endangers people." How is Facebook defining these terms?

· Unlike online intermediaries like Facebook, traditional media outlets can be sued for defamation for the advertisements they run. Because of this, traditional media outlets have generally adopted norms of refusing to run advertisements with clear falsehoods, and of taking down ads where an opposing campaign or fact-checking organization has shown an ad to be false. Would a regulatory regime establishing greater parity in liability between Facebook and traditional media outlets serve to simplify Facebook's policies in this sphere?

· Will you commit to provide ad targeting information, as required under the Honest Ads Act, to better allow opposing campaigns to "correct the record" in responding to potentially misleading ads?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to receiving your responses within the next two weeks.

Sincerely,

Mark R. Warner

U.S. Senator

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