In January 2020, former vice president and likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden went off on Facebook, saying it should lose its Section 230 immunity from lawsuits for user-generated content and CEO Mark Zuckerberg should be held personally liable in civil and maybe even criminal court. On Thursday, Biden’s campaign juiced it up a little, demanding that the social media network stop its policy of letting politicians lie in ads and “amplifying” factually dubious information.
Per the New York Times, the Biden campaign circulated a petition to millions of supporters on Thursday through email, text messages, and social media (yes, that includes Facebook) calling for Facebook to fact-check political ads...in the two weeks directly preceding elections. The letter calls for Facebook to “proactively stem the tide of false information by no longer amplifying untrustworthy content and promptly fact-checking election-related material that goes viral.” It also calls for “clear rules—applied to everyone, including Donald Trump” that prohibit violence or lies about election participation.
Most of this is well-trodden territory. Facebook already claims to be be ‘proactively’ fighting misinformation and fact-checking its News Feed, though the metrics it releases on how effective either approach has been are largely unconvincing. Those tools haven’t stopped a tidal wave of disinformation on the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests against police racism and brutality from crashing over the platform, as the algorithmic boosting and personalized ad-targeting that fuels it are the core of the Facebook platform. The company has continually claimed to be ramping up its efforts even it seems to be as bad as ever or worse. Facebook’s forthcoming pivot to privacy might also allow it to sweep more of these problems under a rug.
As for clearer rules on threats of violence and election misinformation, Facebook has carved out gaping exceptions and contorted itself into thought pretzels in order to avoid politically uncomfortable decisions. For example, Zuckerberg recently justified allowing the president’s posts calling for the military to shoot protesters to stay up by saying it was “newsworthy” and that Facebook thinks “people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.” He also claimed that Trump’s use of the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” had no history as a “dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands.” (It’s actually an implicitly racist dog whistle for brutal crackdowns by authorities.) Facebook has refused to do anything about conspiracy theories Trump is spreading about nonexistent voter fraud, citing similar reasons. .
That this contradicted Zuckerberg’s prior statements is sort of the point; Facebook claims to be doing all these things while giving itself wriggle room to avoid angering someone powerful (say, the president). It allows Zuckerberg to pander to conservatives on Fox News with claims that Facebook shouldn’t be an “arbiter of truth,” even as the company simultaneously claims to have all hands on deck dealing with misinformation and hate speech.
The demand by Biden’s campaign that Facebook create a two-week facts-only zone before the election is indeed new. But it’s also kind of a head-scratcher: This policy would allow Trump and other politicians to continue lying in ads until Oct. 20 instead of, say, always. Even assuming that Biden is including the primaries in this ask, it still leaves open more than a month between the last primary vote and the 2020 general, as well as future years-long stretches between elections.
Biden’s push does further illustrate one thing. Facebook has made itself into a bipartisan punching bag. Right-wingers have loudly aired imaginary claims that even middling efforts by social media companies to limit the spread of misinformation are censoring them, successfully playing the refs and badgering Facebook in particular in a GOP-friendly direction. Now the presumptive Democratic nominee is yelling at them too.
So far, though, these many enemies have largely proved impotent. Congress has hopelessly imploded and is unlikely to pull off anything but political stunts until at least 2021, while Trump’s threats have mostly amounted to bluffs and a bullshit executive order that is almost certainly unenforceable and likely only to generate headache-inducing court battles. Facebook is facing potentially serious antitrust investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and nearly every state attorney general, but the FTC has only issued slap-on-the-wrist fines to Facebook in the past. Tech giants including Facebook are mounting well-funded lobbying efforts that could still thwart antitrust enforcers.
According to the New York Times, Biden’s team lobbied Facebook for months behind the scenes to no avail. Internal Facebook staff walkouts over Trump’s apparent impunity on the site, as well as loss of advertisers and waves of bad press, have seemingly also fallen on deaf ears. It’s of course possible that these political winds could shift at any time. But for now, Zuckerberg appears to be digging in on a bet that business as usual will continue—a position that conveniently also aligns itself with the party that currently controls the federal government.
“We live in a democracy, where the elected officials decide the rules around campaigns,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the Wall Street Journal. “Two weeks ago the president of the United States issued an executive order directing federal agencies to prevent social media sites from engaging in activities like fact-checking political statements. This week, the Democratic candidate for president started a petition calling on us to do the exact opposite.”
“Just as they have done with broadcast networks—where the U.S. government prohibits rejecting politicians’ campaign ads—the people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them,” Stone told the paper. “There is an election coming in November, and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it.”