Donald Trump’s reelection campaign is currently running an ad on Facebook that, with absolutely no evidence, suggests that when he was vice president, Joe Biden threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine to coerce the country’s government into stopping an investigation into his son Hunter. Biden has repeatedly said that this story is completely false. Various reputable fact-checkers, ranging from Politifact to factcheck.org, have also disputed the claim. CNN, for example, refused to air the ad. It’s not a gray area or tricky wording—it’s a lie.
Did Facebook remove the ad? Nope. The tech giant rejected the Biden campaign’s request to pull the ad, responding:
Here's the letter Facebook sent the @JoeBiden campaign explaining why it allowed Trump to run Facebook ads with false allegations about the VP and Ukraine — @sarahmucha reports. https://t.co/HFMdDqpzXH pic.twitter.com/VbUlW2C6qI
— Donie O'Sullivan (@donie) October 9, 2019
If you’ve followed Facebook’s recent policy change on ads paid for by politicians, however, this might not surprise you. When it comes to fact-checking for most posts, Facebook says that it “prohibits ads that include claims debunked by third-party fact-checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.” Misinformation is rampant on the platform, so that’s questionable in practice. But as a policy, it’s fairly straightforward.
When it comes to ads paid for by politicians, however, it takes a hands-off approach. That’s an even bigger problem.
“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” Facebook’s global elections policy chief Katie Harbath wrote. “Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third-party fact checkers.”
What might have inspired this change? We don’t know for certain, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out in a Twitter thread that Donald Trump recently met with Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, in a private meeting in Washington, D.C. Shortly after, Facebook announced the new policy that it wouldn’t fact-check ads paid for by politicians.
We also know that Trump drops some major money—to the tune of millions per week—on Facebook ads.
Two years ago, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar co-sponsored a bill called the Honest Ads Act. Its purpose would be to hold paid digital ads (like the ones on the internet) to the same record-keeping and discourse standards and laws that ads that appear on the radio and television have to meet. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. Klobuchar has this week pressed for a markup of the bill.
In a statement, the Biden campaign said that Facebook’s response is unacceptable and that using misinformation to influence public opinions “poisons the public discourse and chips away at our democracy.”