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Facebook to allow users to switch off political ads

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced a range of measures which are being introduced to the social media platform ahead of the 2020 US Presidential Election, including the option to switch off political ads and an electoral information centre.

Social media companies have been under intense pressure from campaigners, academics and lawmakers to take action against actors using dishonest techniques on their platforms to sway the results of elections. The 2016 US presidential election was heavily targeted by a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign, with similar state-backed campaigns targeting other democratic events since.

Last year, Google announced that it would ban microtargeting by political advertisers, while Twitter went further in announcing an almost total ban on political advertising. Facebook has been singled out as passive in the face of dishonest political advertising, upholding the right of politicians to lie in adverts (with no fact-checking by Facebook) even as fellow social media companies imposed restrictions on political advertising.

Facebook's laissez-faire approach has been criticised by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who has been repeatedly targeted by misleading Republican campaigns.

Now, Zuckerberg has used an op-ed in USA Today to announce how Facebook will handle the period up to the 2020 US presidential election. Most notably, from this week Facebook will begin to allow users to turn off political adverts on Facebook and Instagram. The feature will be rolled out to all US-based users in the next few weeks and expanded to more countries later this year.

“For those of you who’ve already made up your minds and just want the election to be over, we hear you – so we’re also introducing the ability to turn off seeing political ads,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’ll still remind you to vote.”

When a user comes across a single political ad, they will see the option to turn off political advertising. This will include political, electoral and social issue adverts targeted by candidates, super PACs (Political Action Committees) and other political sponsors. It is unclear whether this feature will hide all political adverts or simply show fewer of them.

Zuckerberg also said that Facebook would be encouraging more than four million people to register to vote via its new 'Voting Information Center'. This will appear at the top of users’ News Feeds and will also contain information about how to register for a vote; when and how to vote; voting ID requirements, and how to acquire a mail-in or absentee ballot. This is intended as a line of defence against disinformation about how to vote, which spread on Facebook during the last presidential election in an effort to mislead Democratic voters.

It will also present content from state and local election authorities, such as information about changes to the voting process due to Covid-19. Zuckerberg expects that more than 160 million Americans will see authoritative information about how to vote between July and November on Facebook.

The Voting Information Center is modelled after the Coronavirus Information Center, which Facebook launched in March to boost the visibility of trustworthy public health information amid a deluge of disinformation about the pandemic.

“I believe Facebook has a responsibility not just to prevent voter suppression – which disproportionately targets people of colour – but to actively support well-informed voter engagement, registration and turnout,” Zuckerberg wrote in USA Today.

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