President Donald Trump’s re-election bid just got a stamp of approval from Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Except, not really.
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s team intentionally put this false claim in a series of campaign ads on Facebook this week to draw attention to the platform’s controversial ad policy, one which has allowed similarly defamatory ads from President Donald Trump to run unchecked. As of last year, Facebook exempts politicians and political ads from the platform’s usual fact-checking measures, a rule which the presidential candidate has not minced words about her disdain for.
“Facebook changed their ads policy to allow politicians to run ads with known lies—explicitly turning the platform into a disinformation-for-profit machine,” Warren tweeted Saturday after the ads began cropping up on Facebook late Thursday. So her campaign ads were intended “to see just how far” the platform’s policy goes. You can check them out here in Facebook’s ad library.
Unlike Trump’s campaign ad, though, a disclaimer follows the lie in hers: “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not. (Sorry).” The ad goes on to argue that while Facebook hasn’t explicitly endorsed Trump, it has taken “gobs of money” from the president’s re-election campaign to let them “push out their lies to the American voters” on the platform.
Warren’s response seems targeted at a recent pro-Trump ad Facebook refused to take down this week despite a request from former Vice President Joe Biden. The ad falsely alleges that Biden, another contender for the Democratic presidential nominee, promised to give Ukraine $1 billion to halt an investigation on his son’s company. It’s a claim Trump has repeated several times with zero evidence and one of many conspiracy theories spun in a book by Peter Schweizer, an editor at the alt-right blog Breitbart News.
By allowing these kinds of disinformation campaigns on its platform, Facebook is proving that it values profits more than preserving the American democratic process, Warren argues.
“Facebook holds incredible power to affect elections and our national debate. They’ve decided to let political figures lie to you—even about Facebook itself—while their executives and their investors get even richer off the ads containing these lies,” she tweeted Monday.
Meanwhile, Facebook contends that its refusal to crack down on defamatory ads helps prevent the platform from potentially injecting bias into the political content curation process.
“[The] FCC doesn’t want broadcast companies censoring candidates’ speech. We agree it’s better to let voters—not companies—decide,” Facebook tweeted Saturday, tagging Warren. The tweet also links back to data collected by the media company Advertising Analytics that shows disparities in how many anti-impeachment and pro-impeachment ads aired across four primary states.
Facebook answered our inquiry by referring to the tweet above, but company spokesperson Andy Stone did provide the following statement to CNN: “If Senator Warren wants to say things she knows to be untrue, we believe Facebook should not be in the position of censoring that speech.”
Earlier this week, Facebook public policy director for global politics Katie Harbath argued in a letter sent to the Biden campaign obtained by Gizmodo that the policy doesn’t give politicians complete free rein. Content that attempts to spread “a viral hoax—like a link to an article or a video or photo, that has been previously debunked” can be rejected from political ads. But that only applies to shared content; if a politician spews the bullshit themselves directly, Facebook considers it “direct speech” and it’s hands-off for the platform’s fact-checking program.
Twitter and Google also ran these pro-Trump ads—spokespersons at both confirmed to Gizmodo that these ads didn’t violate either company’s policies—but Warren and Facebook have a bit of a history. Last week the Verge published leaked audio from a company meeting wherein Zuckerberg promised to push back if Warren makes good on her promise to break up big tech companies. The senator subsequently blasted the CEO and reiterated her campaign promise is several scathing tweets.
Update: 10/12/2019, 11:14: Facebook’s response to our inquiry and tweet about Warren’s criticisms were added.