In its latest spin around the misinformation merry-go-round, Facebook has temporarily restricted a pro-Trump super PAC that’s spent nearly $10 million in the 2020 election cycle from placing ads for repeatedly sharing lies, the company told Gizmodo in a statement.
The group in question is the Committee to Defend the President, which happens to sound disconcertingly similar to the infamous pro-Nixon Committee to Re-Elect the President (sometimes called CREEP). It has around 970,000 followers on Facebook, and a quick scan shows that many of its posts have been hidden behind fact-checking labels.
That includes its pinned post, which is thinly-veiled race baiting falsely claiming that Barack Obama said Black people “sell our souls” when they vote for Democrats. The Facebook ad archive shows that the committee has also spent about $324,000 on Facebook ads since May 2018, and six out of 17 ads it purchased since the start of July have been taken down for violating ad policies. News of the recently imposed ad ban was previously reported by CNN.
“As a result of the Committee to Defend the President’s repeated sharing of content determined by third-party fact-checkers to be false, they will not be permitted to advertise for a period of time on our platform,” a Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo.
The spokesperson didn’t respond when asked for comment about how long the slap on the wrist would actually last, though Facebook’s Help Center states that pages and domains can “restore their distribution and ability to monetize and advertise if they stop sharing false news.” As the committee is a super PAC, it is subject to fact-checking policies that politicians and campaigns are largely immune from.
In recent weeks, Facebook has tried to play down longstanding accusations that it has taken a suspiciously permissive attitude towards Trump and his re-election campaign to curry favor, and that some of its policies—such as allowing politicians to lie in ads—are obvious political constructions designed to avoid backlash from right-wingers. Those accusations dovetail with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s convoluted efforts to justify not taking down Trump posts, which have spread conspiracy theories about voter fraud and threaten violence against protesters. As well, Facebook seems nearly incapable of doing anything about Trump campaign ads, and it appears to be giving special treatment to pro-Trump media outlets like Breitbart. (That Facebook’s rulebook is essentially dictated by political concerns is also backed by numerous media reports.)
Trump’s re-election campaign also has a heavy focus on digital advertising and as of last month is estimated to have spent at least $62.3 million on Facebook and Google Ads alone. (Joe Biden’s campaign was estimated to have spent $39.7 million.) Trump reportedly gets more bang for the buck for every dollar spent on Facebook due to an ad pricing model that rewards high engagement.
Mark Zuckerberg has come under strident criticism from his own employees and is facing an image-unfriendly advertiser boycott led by civil rights groups. In response, the company has made some piecemeal rule changes and begun taking a somewhat stricter stance when it comes to Trump, e.g. on Wednesday, it removed a Trump post claiming that children are immune to the novel coronavirus.
A report yesterday by the Washington Post found that Facebook’s third-party fact checkers regularly flag lies, deception, and falsehoods in Trump ads that often reached millions of people, but Facebook never moved to restrict the ads or notify users.
According to BuzzFeed, the topic of whether Facebook would do anything to prevent itself from becoming a vehicle for Trump to discredit the results of the 2020 election is being brought up with understandable urgency on internal Facebook message boards and in company meetings. Around 2,900 employees pressed Zuckerberg for a clear answer on the issue at a meeting on Thursday, according to BuzzFeed. He responded that Facebook had not yet settled on a policy and that it was a “sensitive thing.”
BuzzFeed also reported that a senior Facebook engineer had assembled internal data showing that conservative pages and publishers were receiving special treatment in fact-checking decisions and that the company’s VP of global public policy, former George W. Bush aide Joel Kaplan, had personally intervened to prevent right-wing publishers from gaining repeat-offender status. Facebook responded by firing the engineer on Wednesday.