Categories
Biden, Joseph R Jr Bosworth, Andrew (1982- ) Computers and the Internet Dorsey, Jack Facebook Inc Google Inc Instagram Inc Online Advertising Political Advertising Presidential Election of 2020 Sandberg, Sheryl K Social Media Trump, Donald J Twitter Uncategorized United States Politics and Government Warren, Elizabeth Zuckerberg, Mark E

Facebook Says It Won’t Back Down From Allowing Lies in Political Ads

SAN FRANCISCO — Defying pressure from Congress, Facebook said on Thursday that it would continue to allow political campaigns to use the site to target advertisements to particular slices of the electorate and that it would not police the truthfulness of the messages sent out.

The stance put Facebook, the most important digital platform for political ads, at odds with some of the other large tech companies, which have begun to put new limits on political ads.

Facebook’s decision, telegraphed in recent months by executives, is likely to harden criticism of the company heading into this year’s presidential election.

Political advertising cuts to the heart of Facebook’s outsize role in society, and the company has found itself squeezed between liberal critics, who want it to do a better job of policing its various social media platforms, and conservatives, who say their views are being unfairly muzzled.

The issue has raised important questions regarding how heavy a hand technology companies like Facebook — which also owns Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp — and Google should exert when deciding what types of political content they will and will not permit.

By maintaining a status quo, Facebook executives are essentially saying they are doing the best they can without government guidance and see little benefit to the company or the public in changing.

In a blog post, a company official echoed Facebook’s earlier calls for lawmakers to set firm rules.

“In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management overseeing the advertising integrity division, said in the post. “We have based ours 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 scrutinized and debated in public.”

Other social media companies have decided otherwise, and some had hoped Facebook would quietly follow their lead. In late October, Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, banned all political advertising from his network, citing the challenges that novel digital systems present to civic discourse. Google quickly followed suit with limits on political ads across some of its properties, though narrower in scope.

Reaction to Facebook’s policy broke down largely along party lines.

The Trump campaign, which has been highly critical of any attempts by technology companies to regulate political advertising and has already spent more than $27 million on the platform, largely supported Facebook’s decision not to interfere in targeting ads or to set fact-checking standards.

“Our ads are always accurate so it’s good that Facebook won’t limit political messages because it encourages more Americans to be involved in the process,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign. “This is much better than the approaches from Twitter and Google, which will lead to voter suppression.”

Democratic presidential candidates and outside groups decried the decision.

“Facebook is paying for its own glowing fake news coverage, so it’s not surprising they’re standing their ground on letting political figures lie to you,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Twitter.

Ms. Warren, who has been among the most critical of Facebook and regularly calls for major tech companies to be broken up, reiterated her stance that the social media company should face tougher policies.

The Biden campaign was similarly critical. The campaign has confronted Facebook over an ad run by President Trump’s campaign that attacked Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s record on Ukraine.

“Donald Trump’s campaign can (and will) still lie in political ads,” Bill Russo, the deputy communications director for Mr. Biden, said in a statement. “Facebook can (and will) still profit off it. Today’s announcement is more window dressing around their decision to allow paid misinformation.”

But many Democratic groups willing to criticize Facebook had to walk a fine line; they have pushed for more regulation when it comes to fact-checking political ads, but they have been adamantly opposed to any changes to the ad-targeting features.

On Thursday, some Democratic outside groups welcomed Facebook’s decision not to limit microtargeting, but still thought the policy fell short.

“These changes read to us mostly as a cover for not making the change that is most vital: ensuring politicians are not allowed to use Facebook as a tool to lie to and manipulate voters,” said Madeline Kriger, who oversees digital ad buying at Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC.

Facebook has played down the business opportunity in political ads, saying the vast majority of its revenue came from commercial, not political, ads. But lawmakers have noted that Facebook ads could be a focal point of Mr. Trump’s campaign as well as those of top Democrats.

Facebook’s hands-off ad policy has already allowed for misleading advertisements. In October, a Facebook ad from the Trump campaign made false accusations about Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. The ad quickly went viral and was viewed by millions. After the Biden campaign asked Facebook to take down the ad, the company refused.

“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 head of global elections policy, Katie Harbath, wrote in the letter to the Biden campaign.

In an attempt to provoke Facebook, Ms. Warren’s presidential campaign ran an ad falsely claiming that the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was backing the re-election of Mr. Trump. Facebook did not take the ad down.

Criticism seemed to stiffen Mr. Zuckerberg’s resolve. Company officials said he and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s president, had ultimately made the decision to stand firm.

In a strongly worded speech at Georgetown University in October, Mr. Zuckerberg said he believed in the power of unfettered speech, including in paid advertising, and did not want to be in the position to police what politicians could and could not say to constituents. Facebook’s users, he said, should be allowed to make those decisions for themselves.

“People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he said.

Facebook officials have repeatedly said significant changes to its rules for political or issue ads could harm the ability of smaller, less well-funded organizations to raise money and organize across the network.

Instead of overhauling its policies, Facebook has made small tweaks. Mr. Leathern said Facebook would add greater transparency features to its library of political advertising in the coming months, a resource for journalists and outside researchers to scrutinize the types of ads run by the campaigns.

Facebook also will add a feature that allows users to see fewer campaign and political issue ads in their news feeds, something the company has said many users have requested.

There was considerable debate inside Facebook about whether it should change. Late last year, hundreds of employees supported an internal memo that called on Mr. Zuckerberg to limit the abilities of Facebook’s political advertising products.

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Bosworth said that even though keeping the current policies in place “very well may lead to” Mr. Trump’s re-election, it was the right decision. Dozens of Facebook employees pushed back on Mr. Bosworth’s conclusions, arguing in the comments section below his post that politicians should be held to the same standard that applies to other Facebook users.

For now, Facebook appears willing to risk disinformation in support of unfettered speech.

“Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies,” Mr. Leathern said. “Frankly, we believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this, the better.”

Mike Isaac reported in San Francisco and Cecilia Kang reported from Washington. Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting from New York.

Categories
Bosworth, Andrew (1982- ) Facebook Inc News and News Media Online Advertising Presidential Election of 2020 Trump, Donald J Uncategorized Zuckerberg, Mark E

Don’t Tilt Scales Against Trump, Facebook Executive Warns

SAN FRANCISCO — Since the 2016 election, when Russian trolls and a tsunami of misinformation turned social media into a partisan battlefield, Facebook has wrestled with the role it played in President Trump’s victory.

Now, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times, a longtime Facebook executive has told employees that the company had a moral duty not to tilt the scales against Mr. Trump as he seeks re-election.

On Dec. 30, Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, wrote on his internal Facebook page that, as a liberal, he found himself wanting to use the social network’s powerful platform against Mr. Trump. But citing the “Lord of the Rings” franchise and the philosopher John Rawls, Mr. Bosworth said that doing so would eventually backfire.

“I find myself desperately wanting to pull any lever at my disposal to avoid the same result,” he wrote. “So what stays my hand? I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment.

“Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her,” he said, misspelling the name of the character Galadriel. “As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.”

In a meandering 2,500-word post, titled “Thoughts for 2020,” Mr. Bosworth weighed in on issues including political polarization, Russian interference and the news media’s treatment of Facebook. He gave a frank assessment of Facebook’s shortcomings in recent years, saying that the company had been “late” to address the issues of data security, misinformation and foreign interference. And he accused the left of overreach, saying that when it came to calling people Nazis, “I think my fellow liberals are a bit too, well, liberal.”

Mr. Bosworth also waded into the debate over the health effects of social media, rejecting what he called “wildly offensive” comparisons of Facebook to addictive substances like nicotine. He instead compared Facebook to sugar, and said users were responsible for moderating their own intake.

“If I want to eat sugar and die an early death that is a valid position,” Mr. Bosworth wrote. “My grandfather took such a stance towards bacon and I admired him for it. And social media is likely much less fatal than bacon.”

The post by Mr. Bosworth, a former head of Facebook’s advertising team, provides an unusually candid glimpse of the debates raging within Facebook about the platform’s responsibilities as it heads into the 2020 election.

The biggest of those debates is whether Facebook should change its rules governing political speech. Posts by politicians are exempt from many of Facebook’s current rules, and their ads are not submitted for fact-checking, giving them license to mislead voters with partisan misinformation.

Last year, platforms like Twitter and Google announced restrictions to their political advertising tools ahead of the 2020 election.

Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, have faced heavy pressure from Democrats and Republicans, including Mr. Trump’s campaign, not to restrict its own powerful ad platform, which allows political campaigns to reach targeted audiences and raise money from supporters. But other politicians, and some Facebook employees, including a group that petitioned Mr. Zuckerberg in October, have argued that the social network has a responsibility to stamp out misinformation on its platform, including in posts by politicians.

Mr. Bosworth said that even though keeping the current policies in place “very well may lead to” Mr. Trump’s re-election, it was the right decision.

Dozens of Facebook employees pushed back on Mr. Bosworth’s conclusions, arguing in the comments section below his post that politicians should be held to the same standard as other Facebook users. They debated whether Facebook should ban or remove posts by politicians, including Mr. Trump, that included hate speech or forms of misinformation.

One Facebook employee warned that if the company continued to take its current approach, it risked promoting populist leaders around the world, including in the United States.

A Facebook spokeswoman provided a statement from Mr. Bosworth in which he said that the post “wasn’t written for public consumption,” but that he “hoped this post would encourage my co-workers to continue to accept criticism with grace as we accept the responsibility we have overseeing our platform.”

Ultimately, the decision on whether to allow politicians to spread misinformation on Facebook rests with Mr. Zuckerberg. In recent months, he has appeared to stand firm on the decision to keep the existing ad policies in place, saying that he believes Facebook should not become an arbiter of truth. But he has also left himself room to change his mind. In November, a Facebook spokesman said the company was “looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads.”

Among those lobbying Mr. Zuckerberg is President Trump himself, who claimed on a radio show on Monday that Mr. Zuckerberg had congratulated him on being “No. 1” on Facebook during a private dinner.

Mr. Bosworth said he believed Facebook was responsible for Mr. Trump’s 2016 election victory, but not because of Russian interference or the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which millions of Facebook users’ data was leaked to a political strategy firm that worked with the Trump campaign. Mr. Bosworth said the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica revelations — uncovered by The Times, working with The Observer of London and The Guardian — rightly changed the conversation around how Facebook should handle user data, and which companies should be given access to that data.

But, he said, Mr. Trump simply used Facebook’s advertising tools effectively.

“He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica,” Mr. Bosworth wrote. “He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.”

Mr. Bosworth, a longtime confidant of Mr. Zuckerberg’s who is viewed by some inside Facebook as a proxy for the chief executive, has been an outspoken defender of the company’s positions in the past.

In 2018, BuzzFeed News published a memo Mr. Bosworth wrote in 2016 justifying the company’s growth-at-all-costs ethos, in which he said the company’s mission of connecting people was “de facto good,” even if it resulted in deaths.

After the memo’s publication, a Facebook executive said the company wished it could “go back and hit delete” on Mr. Bosworth’s 2016 post.