Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, has come under fire for the decision not to fact-check political advertisements
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has come under fire for the decision not to fact-check political advertisements © REUTERS

Facebook has announced it will prohibit new political advertisements in the week leading up to the US presidential election, in a concession to critics who warn the platform could be used to spread misinformation and manipulate voters in the final days of the campaign.

The move, which marks the company’s biggest action on political advertising to date, is part of election security measures announced by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday.

The updated policy will not, however, change Facebook’s controversial decision to exempt political advertising from its usual fact-checking procedure, which was among the issues raised in an audit commissioned by the social media platform.

But Mr Zuckerberg argued Facebook users would not have enough time to scrutinise and debate new claims in political advertisements released during the last week of the campaign.

Existing political adverts will not be affected, with advertisers able to adjust which audiences are targeted, on the basis that they would be publicly accessible through the company’s ad library.

“This election is not going to be business as usual,” he said in a blog post on the platform.

The move is a concession from Mr Zuckerberg, who has come under fire from Democrats and civil rights activists for his refusal to have Facebook fact-check political ads.

The chief executive has maintained that private sector companies should not have the power to censor politicians. That prompted Joe Biden’s campaign in June to call for an ads blackout in the fortnight before the election.

The platform will also add a cautionary label to posts in which campaigns or candidates prematurely claim victory, Mr Zuckerberg said.

Donald Trump, US president, has increasingly attempted to discredit the mail-in voting system, at a time when a big rise in mail-in ballots is expected because of pandemic-related safety concerns. The large increase in postal voting could delay election results, fuelling concerns that some candidates may attempt to claim victory before all the ballots are counted.

“It’s the first time [Facebook] has gone beyond the letter of the law in terms of political advertising in the US,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, while acknowledging the absence of a commitment to fact-check political adverts.

Samantha North, a freelance disinformation investigator, said: “On the political ads, one week before the election will likely be too little, too late.”

She was also critical of Mr Zuckerberg‘s comment that he generally believed the best antidote to bad speech is more speech: “That’s a dangerous approach in the current climate, where the population is already suffering from the negative effects of attention overload.”

Samantha Zager, deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, was critical of the move. “In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, president Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America,” she said.

Mr Zuckerberg has previously faced pressure, including from his own employees, over the refusal to remove some posts by the president.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Other election security measures outlined by Mr Zuckerberg include expanding Facebook’s work with state election authorities seeking to counter false information about voting, removing posts that claim Americans are at risk of catching Covid-19 by taking part in voting and enhancing policies to counter voter suppression.

He also said Facebook would partner with Reuters and the National Election Pool to provide official results as they become available, labelling posts that prematurely claimed victory and directing users to the platform’s voting information centre.

In a sign of social media companies’ increasing willingness to address the president’s messaging, Facebook and Twitter on Thursday added cautionary labels to posts from Mr Trump for breaching their latest policies to stamp out voter suppression and election misinformation. 

The posts from the president suggested that US citizens who have voted by mail ballot should go to polling stations on election day to check that their vote has been counted. 

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Mr Trump wrote: “If it has not been Counted, VOTE (which is a citizen’s right to do). If your Mail In Ballot arrives . . . after you Vote, which it should not, that Ballot will not be used or counted in that your vote has already been cast & tabulated.”

That way, citizens could be assured their vote “hasn’t been ‘lost, thrown out, or in any way destroyed’”, he added. His remarks drew swift condemnation from critics who said he was encouraging people to vote twice, which is illegal in the US.

Before being able to view the posts, Twitter users were required to click on a label that warned the tweets breached its rules “about civic and election integrity” — although the underlying content remains accessible “in the public interest”, it said.

Facebook’s label, fixed below the Trump posts, said “voting by mail has a long history of trustworthiness in the US and the same is expected this year”. It also contains a link to Facebook’s new voter information hub.

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