Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign sent requests to Google, Facebook, and Twitter this week asking the companies to remove ads produced by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, arguing that the ads make false allegations. All three companies denied the request, explaining that the ads don’t violate their policies—but Facebook’s response was particularly confounding.
The ad falsely alleges that Biden promised to give Ukraine $1 billion in exchange for firing a prosecutor investigating Biden’s son’s company—a claim that Trump has made many times without presenting evidence. In fact, no one has been able to provide evidence of the claim which originates from a conspiracy-spinning book by Peter Schweizer, an editor at the alt-right blog Breitbart News. According to Bloomberg, Schweizer doesn’t even allege that any crimes were committed in his unproven scenario.
Reuters reported that Biden’s campaign sent a letter to the three tech companies and each of them declined to take action because each found that the ad did not violate the rules of any of the platforms.
Gizmodo obtained the letters. “[W]e are putting you on notice about the absolute falsity of these claims,” all three letters state. “If President Trump, the RNC, or other third party advertisers allied with the Trump campaign attempt to buy additional advertising to spread these lies, we expect that you will exercise your legal right, consistent with your stated policy, to reject those attempts.”
Twitter and Google spokespersons confirmed to Gizmodo that the ad did not violate either company’s policies. Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Gizmodo reviewed a letter that Facebook public policy director for global politics Katie Harbath sent to the Biden campaign in response to the request.
In the letter, Harbath tries to clarify why Facebook does not believe Trump’s campaign ad violates the platform’s rules by explaining that “when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact checkers,” because Facebook views that as “direct speech.”
Facebook decided last year that it will not fact-check political statements or ads. The company clarified in September that politicians are exempt from their fact-checking policies. Presidential candidate Elizebeth Warren has put this rule on blast in recent days. Facebook and other companies also hide their knowing participation in profiting from false information behind a “newsworthiness” exemption. There might be a stronger argument for that kind of exemption in a case in which a politician just uses their page to say something like anyone else, but Facebook has gone further in acknowledging that it will help magnify false information for a fee.
Harbath’s letter goes on to explain that if a politician shares a “viral hoax” that has been “previously debunked” then Facebook will “demote that content, display related information from fact-checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements,” but insists that “is different from a politician’s own claim or statement—even if the substance of that claim” because that makes it “direct speech.”
This obfuscated messaging provides an unclear answer to Biden’s request. Facebook did not immediately respond to Gizmodo questions that aimed to clarify what Harbath said in her letter, including the question, “Would Facebook run an ad by a prominent politician who claimed ‘Mark Zuckerberg killed his partner in Facebook when he was in college and shouldn’t be trusted?’”
Harbath’s explanation seems to lean heavily on the notion that Facebook will only take action on “previously debunked” stories. It appears to imply that if Facebook promotes a false statement that is debunked after it has begun to spread, it’s fair game to keep raking in money. It also appears to imply that Facebook is happy to magnify any defamatory statement as long as you can’t definitively prove it is not true. For instance, if I were a politician who ran an ad that said “in 1988 Mark Zuckerberg drowned a bag of cats and smeared their blood on his face while alone in the woods,” that would be hard to disprove. But it appears that Facebook would be totally fine accepting money to promote an ad making such claims. We’ll update this post if Facebook disputes any of these points with factual information because we’re not shameless money-grubbing freaks.
Update: In response to our questions clarifying its policies regarding moderating political ads, a Facebook spokesperson provided the following additional info:
“We don’t reject ads from politicians based on the outcome of a fact check from our third-party fact-checking partners. Put another way, we don’t send them politicians ads to review (nor unpaid content like posts etc).
We consider ads that are in the politician’s voice or from their campaign direct speech and ineligible for review... There will be some instances where a politician’s content is impacted by the outcome of a fact check. Those are cases where they share an article or video back to their page (not in their voice) that was already debunked. In that case, we would demote it.”
Here is the full letter that Harbath sent the Biden campaign:
Mr. Schultz and Ms. Eisenberg:
Thank you for your letter and the opportunity to clarify our policies with respect to political advertising.
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. Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact checkers.
However, if a politician seeks to share a viral hoax—like a link to an article or a video or photo, that has been previously debunked, we will demote that content, display related information from fact-checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements. That is different from a politician’s own claim or statement—even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere. If the claim is made directly by a politician on their Page, in an ad or on their website, it is considered direct speech and ineligible for our third- party fact checking program.
These policies apply to organic and paid content from politicians - including the ad by President Trump that you reference in your letter.
However, politicians, like everyone else on Facebook, must continue to comply with our terms, including our Advertising Policies. For instance, last Fall - during the 2018 midterms - we rejected an ad of President Trump’s for violating our policy against sensational content.
We’ve also set a new standard for transparency on Facebook Pages and political ads so people can see who is behind them — the very transparency that enables watchdogs, journalists, and competing campaigns and civic actors to see the ads being run by those seeking elected office and attempting to influence our political debate. All ads from politicians must go through this process and are visible in the ad library.
Please note the work of our independent third-party fact checkers, ads transparency and the policies described here are only one part of a comprehensive strategy to protect the integrity of elections. We’re continuing to develop smarter tools, provide greater transparency, and build stronger partnerships to help us close previous vulnerabilities and address new threats.
For example, today we block millions of fake accounts every day, stopping many bad actors from ever having the chance to spread misinformation.
We’re also working with law enforcement and other technology companies to allow for better information sharing and threat detection. And we are working with academics, civil society groups, and researchers to hear from experts on these issues.
We hope this letter provides useful context as you consider our efforts to allow robust domestic political debate to flourish, empower voters to judge what politicians say for themselves, and stop bad actors from using our platforms to interfere in US elections.
Please let us know if you would like to discuss any of these topics further. We are happy to set up a time to talk.
Katie Harbath Public Policy Director, Global Elections