OPINION: Facebook’s policy on false political ads undermines its progress in combating misinformation

A blue cutout of the Facebook logo. Some figures passively stand in front of the logo with haloes above their heads, while figures behind the logo have speech bubbles containing the words "fake news" above their heads. Other figures behind the logo carry bullhorns.
Graphic by Annie Wu

Free speech has long been one of the U.S.’s most cherished values.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg capitalized on this in an Oct. 17 speech at Georgetown University, where he spoke about Facebook as a social media platform and its role in protecting free speech. In declaring Facebook to be a pioneer of free expression, Zuckerberg spouted feel-good lines like “I’m here today because I believe we must continue to stand for free expression,” and “I believe in giving people a voice because, at the end of the day, I believe in people.” 

Later that day, Facebook Newsroom published a transcript of the speech online under the title “Mark Zuckerberg Stands for Voice and Free Expression.”

At Georgetown, Zuckerberg notably made this statement: “We don’t fact-check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.”

This is part of Facebook’s recently announced policy on political ads, which states that the company will not fact-check political ads, and speech from politicians will be classified as “newsworthy content.”

In his speech, Zuckerberg justified Facebook’s policy by saying, “I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.”

Facebook’s long list of recent scandals include exposing the data of millions of users to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm linked to the 2016 Trump campaign, according to Vox; archiving Facebook videos that users had previously deleted, according to New York Magazine; and allowing fake news originating from Russian accounts to influence American voters, according to Fortune Magazine.

Due to these scandals, Facebook has recently been the target of much backlash. Zuckerberg recognizes this and has been giving a series of talks to generate positive publicity for the company.

But it isn’t all just talk. It’s true that Facebook has made a lot of progress in the past few years toward preventing the spread of misinformation and false news on its platform.

The company has developed new technologies to identify fake accounts and algorithms to pinpoint misleading content, according to a press release. It’s using machine learning to identify false accounts, reworking the news feed and developing ways for Facebook users to report misinformed content to the company.

And like Zuckerberg mentioned in his speech, Facebook is in the process of establishing an independent Oversight Board, a diverse group from varied backgrounds, to make final decisions about controversial content on the platform.

Furthermore, just a week ago, Facebook announced that it’s creating a “News” tab on its U.S. interface as a collective source of news from credible publications. Hopefully, this will enable users to make better decisions in interpreting the validity of the news they encounter on their Facebook feeds, as they will now have easier access to authentic journalism, as a comparison against news from other less credible sources.

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So, Facebook shouldn’t undermine all of this progress with its policy on allowing speech from politicians to be exempt from Facebook’s community standards because of its “newsworthy” status, as well as not fact-checking political ads.

As a company with such a large reach, Facebook must realize that its policies have a large impact on the communities in which its users live. President Donald Trump will likely benefit from Facebook’s currently way-too-lax policy on political ads. Yet, Facebook refuses to remove a false Trump campaign ad about Democratic candidate Joe Biden and Ukraine.

More than 250 company employees signed a letter addressed to Zuckerberg, asking him to change Facebook’s political ad policy, which they said was “a threat to what FB stands for.” The company can’t turn a blind eye to that.

Americans, and the rest of the 2.4 billion Facebook users around the world, deserve free speech, but they also deserve the truth. This means no false political advertising, and no more fake news. It’s not enough to “[focus] on the authenticity of the speaker rather than the content itself,” as Zuckerberg claims Facebook should

In an ideal world, people should be able to make their own decisions about important or controversial topics like elections. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and people won’t be able to make informed decisions if false information is circulated on a platform as large as Facebook.

Facebook has been disappointing its users for so long. We don’t want to hear cliché, meaningless statements from Zuckerberg. We want to see real change. Facebook has made a lot of progress. But it needs to tackle the issue of false political ads.

In some ways, Zuckerberg is right; Facebook doesn’t have an easy task ahead of it. It is almost impossible to draw a hard line between misinformation spread for intentionally nefarious purposes and authentic content. 

But the company must take responsibility for the problems that have been caused by its rapid growth. Clearly, it’s already doing so, with its new initiatives like the independent Oversight Board and the introduction of the “News” tab. Now, Facebook just needs to face reality and realize that false political ads should not be an acceptable form of free speech.

Michelle Lum HM ’23 is from San Jose, California. She often spends her time scrolling through her Facebook news feed, eating chocolate chip cookies and desperately wishing that she could be on fall break again.

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