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Facebook upholds politicians’ right to lie in online ads

Image credit: Getty images

Facebook has insisted that it will continue to permit lies in political advertising on its platform, despite searing criticism, as it announces new features to give users at least some control over political ads presented to them.

Since the 2016 US presidential election, the vast influence of political advertising – particularly using misleading and false statements – has become a prominent subject of debate. Discussions about how to ensure that political advertising is fair, truthful and transparent have intensified in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.

In October 2019, Twitter announced that it would ban all political advertising. Weeks later, Google announced its plans to ban microtargeting of political adverts.

However, Facebook has maintained that it will not remove or fact-check lies in lucrative political adverts, such as the false accusations made by the Trump campaign about Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and his family in October last year. In an appearance before Congress last year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended this policy, arguing that it was a matter of right to free speech.

Despite criticism, Facebook has doubled down on its policy as it announces a raft of limited “transparency features” relating to political advertising. The changes include some updates to its Ad Library – a publicly accessible database of all Facebook advertising – to render it more usable, such as by allowing people to view audience size of ads and search the library more easily.

Facebook will also allow users to add a new control to view fewer “political and social issue ads” on Facebook and Instagram and to include or exclude themselves from “Custom Audiences” advertising (which precisely targets users based on information such as lists of phone numbers).

Facebook stated that it had considered limiting microtargeting of political adverts, but chose not to on account of dissent from US political campaign groups.

“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,” a blog post written by Facebook director 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.”

Leathern said that it based its political advertising policies on the principle that “people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinised and debated in public”. It added that politicians who post hate speech and other harmful content would be held to Facebook’s Community Standards.

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