Facebook says it will let users see fewer political ads — but still refuses to fact-check them

Key Points
  • Facebook says it will start letting its U.S. users see fewer political ads, starting this summer.
  • It follows a decision by Twitter to ban political ads outright. Google has also limited ad targeting.
  • The company says it won't fact-check political ads, nor will it limit targeting for such posts.
Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Yasin Ozturk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Facebook will let people see fewer political ads, the social media giant said Thursday, responding to popular demand as it prepares for the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

The company announced a slew of new updates aimed at boosting transparency around such ads. The news comes as Facebook faces intense political scrutiny and after Twitter implemented an outright ban on political advertising. Google also limited the extent to which political groups can target users with paid posts.

Starting this summer, Facebook will "add a new control that will allow people to see fewer political and social issue ads on Facebook and Instagram," Rob Leathern, the company's director of product management, said in a blog post.

"This feature builds on other controls in Ad Preferences we've released in the past, like allowing people to see fewer ads about certain topics or remove interests."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has previously defended the firm's policy on political ads. While politicians and campaigners have slammed the platform for allowing disinformation in such content — like an ad from President Donald Trump's reelection campaign that included false claims about Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden — Facebook has mostly held firm on the issue.

Facebook has insisted it won't fact-check political ads, arguing this could interfere with free speech in politics. Nor will it limit algorithmic targeting for such posts — though Facebook's Leathern said it had "considered doing so," but decided against this as 85% of spending from U.S. presidential candidates is on ad campaigns targeting audiences of more than 250,000 people.

How easy is it to make a deepfake video?
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"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," said Leathern

"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."

The executive added that this "does not mean that politicians can say whatever they like" in promoted Facebook posts, adding that all users have to adhere to its rules banning hate speech and violent content. "We regularly disallow ads from politicians that break our rules."

The company instead says it's in favor of legislation like the Honest Ads Act, a bill supported by Democratic senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar and Republican lawmaker Lindsey Graham. The law is aimed at tackling foreign meddling and making digital political ads more transparent.

Facebook said it would also introduce new transparency controls in the first quarter of 2020, including the ability to see the number of people targeted by election ads and to see posts that campaigns have opted to exclude them from seeing.

Online ads aren't the only concern with Facebook's role in politics. The company's move Thursday follows a decision to block so-called deepfakes, which use artificial intelligence to manipulate a video or audio to make it seem as though the subject is saying or doing something they're not.