A Facebook policy lets politicians lie in ads, leaving
Democrats fearing what Trump will do
Donald Trump (Susan Walsh/AP)
Tony Romm and
Oct. 10, 2019 at 4:31 p.m. EDT
As Facebook cracked down on disinformation flooding its social media platforms, executives decided to codify
a key loophole: Politicians remained free to lie at will — unbound by the rules designed to stop everyday users
from peddling viral falsehoods.
This decision, put into place last year, has sparked a sharp backlash this week among Democrats, who complain
that it gives President Trump free rein to use major social media platforms as disinformation machines. Sen.
Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading presidential candidate, made this point in a Facebook ad Thursday in
which she joked that the company had endorsed Trump, adding that its policies allow “a candidate to
intentionally lie to the American people.”
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Warren’s ad was the latest salvo in a growing campaign by Democrats to pressure social media companies to
curb Trump’s ability to push demonstrably untrue information on their platforms. Last week, Democrat Joseph
Biden asked Facebook to remove a Trump campaign ad that made false claims, prompting the company to
refuse on the grounds that political speech is not covered by the expansive fact-checking system it put in place
after the 2016 presidential election.
The Democratic complaints have emerged as a counterpoint to long-standing claims by Republicans, including
Trump, that social media platforms and their mostly liberal workforces unfairly tilt the playing field against
conservatives and their ideas. This argument, pushed in tweets and public statements, has made the social media
companies timid in enunciating and enforcing common-sense standards of behavior online, say Democrats, who
contend that the dominant force in Silicon Valley is not political liberalism but the quest for market dominance
“Facebook has not only created a space where we know misinformation has run rampant for a long time, but
they’ve always allowed the Trump campaign to take advantage of the platform to spread blatantly false posts
and advertising,” said Tara McGowan, the chief executive of ACRONYM, a progressive nonprofit that tracks
digital ad spending.
Deception is hardly new to politics, and candidates have run ads inflating their records and trashing their
opponents on television and radio for years. But those falsehoods now, in the age of social media, can go viral
in a matter of minutes, reaching millions of people around the world.
Mark Zuckerberg on Post Reports: “I don’t think people want to live in a world where you can only say things
that tech companies decide are 100 percent true.”
The pressure to more aggressively police disinformation has left Facebook and its Silicon Valley peers in a
precarious position. Democrats and Republicans alike agree that social media sites must be more vigilant to
protect civic discourse after Russian agents easily seeded propaganda on the Internet’s most popular platforms
during the last presidential campaign. But doing so would require Facebook and others, including Twitter and
Google-owned YouTube, to embrace a truth-squadding role they have long avoided ― in no small part out of
concern that political figures might see their decisions as biased.
Facebook’s decision to overlook deception in political advertising came to light in a speech last month by Nick
Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister who’s now Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and
communications. He compared the social media platform with its more than 2 billion global users — a total not
including the company’s subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp — to a tennis court.
“Our job is to make sure the court is ready — the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height,”
Clegg said. “But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not
Clegg did acknowledge a role for Facebook to combat outside interference and to make it clear to the public
who is buying political ads, but did not mention a place for umpires to determine what is demonstrably false or
otherwise out of bounds.
“It is not our role to intervene when politicians speak,” Clegg said. “That’s why I want to be really clear today –
we do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the
platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.”
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Facebook, which declined to comment on how it formulated the policy, confirmed it formally put it in place in
September 2018, before the congressional midterm election. But even before that, some of the company’s factchecking partners said they had never been asked to review the veracity of political ads that appeared on its
The potential for abuse became clear Monday after Biden pressed Facebook to remove an ad based on
demonstrable falsehoods. The ad claimed that Biden had used the threat of withholding $1 billion to Ukraine to
quash an investigation of a company for which his son was a board member — even though the claim has been
repeatedly labeled as untrue by news organizations. In response, Facebook said that “direct speech” by
politicians was not covered by the fact-checking process that Facebook has put in place in recent years.
“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,” Katie Harbath, the public policy director for Global Elections at Facebook
and a former digital strategist for Republican political committees and the 2008 presidential campaign of
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, wrote to Biden campaign officials. “Thus, when a politician
speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact-checkers.”
That means posts and campaign ads by politicians operate in an alternative system. Ordinary users who push
lies online, especially in a coordinated manner, now face a range of consequences, up to an outright ban from
the platform. Politicians, however, largely do not. In doing so, Facebook found itself in the company of other
social media sites, including Twitter, where the Trump campaign also ran its anti-Biden ad.
Twitter confirmed the ad did not violate its rules. YouTube spokeswoman Alex Krasov said political advertisers
must meet certain verification and disclosure guidelines, but pointed to the site’s rules, which do not prohibit
outright falsehoods in political ads.
Trump’s campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh defended the ads as “100 percent accurate” and said, “The truth
hurts and it’s not a surprise that Biden doesn’t want anyone to hear it.”
The claim is false: Biden’s move did not imperil the investigation, was backed by the State Department and was
coordinated with leaders of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund due to concerns the
prosecutor general ignored corruption, fact-checkers have stated.
Facebook’s exception is rooted in the philosophical tradition of the First Amendment and the typically wide
berth the U.S. legal system affords political speech, but the practical consequences have enraged critics. Chris
Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who has become a fierce critic of the company, tweeted Tuesday that
Zuckerberg’s decision “to allow outright lies in political ads to travel on Facebook” was tantamount to
“embracing the philosophy behind Trumpism and thereby tipping the scales.”
The company’s exception for political speech also has fueled resentment among the Democratic campaigns
fighting to win attention and combat falsehoods online. Calling on Facebook to “refuse to air baseless ads,”
Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)’s presidential campaign, said in a statement: “We
should have all learned the lessons from 2016 and social media companies should have to bear more
responsibility to prevent lies from being spread against anyone.”
Inside the Democratic National Committee, officials have agonized over Facebook’s resistance to policing
falsehoods, with some saying they feared the decision could effectively declare open season for political
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The kinds of falsehoods that they argued helped deliver Trump the presidency are being used more tactically
now to achieve maximum attention and audience. Some officials said they are concerned about a rapid
expansion in false ads now that campaigns realize they’ll face no consequences for bending the truth.
DNC chief Seema Nanda said in a statement that Facebook had missed an opportunity to ensure its platform
was a place voters could rely on to learn the facts. “Trump has an utter disregard for the truth, and allowing his
lies to go unchecked sets a dangerous precedent that could lead to further escalation,” she said.
Trump’s 2020 campaign has invested heavily in social-media advertising, including a system to test what
Facebook ads might resonate with voters most. Roughly two-thirds of the $1.1 million spent on Facebook ads
last week related to impeachment came from Trump’s campaign, according to data from the research firm Bully
Over the last two weeks, the Trump campaign has spent huge sums on Facebook ads, the data show, including
$45,000 related to Biden; $252,000 related to socialism; $104,000 related to Mueller; and $86,000 related to
“fake news.” Trump’s campaign spent more on Facebook ads last week related to the debates than any of the
Democrats actually participating in them. And on the topic of guns and immigration, his campaign spent more
on Facebook ads last week than all of the Democratic candidates combined.
“There will be a wild West in terms of what Trump is allowed to get away with,” said Brian Fallon, the former
press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and now leader of advocacy group Demand Justice.
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Facebook, Elections and Political Speech
September 24, 2019
By Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications
Speaking at the Atlantic Festival in Washington DC today, I set out the measures that Facebook is taking to
prevent outside interference in elections and Facebook’s attitude towards political speech on the platform. This
is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression and respect for the democratic process, as well
as the fact that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most
scrutinized speech there is.
You can read the full text of my speech below, but as I know there are often lots of questions about our policies
and the way we enforce them I thought I’d share the key details.
Fact-Checking Political Speech
We rely on third-party fact-checkers to help reduce the spread of false news and other types of viral
misinformation, like memes or manipulated photos and videos. We don’t believe, however, that it’s an
appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience
and being subject to public debate and scrutiny. That’s why Facebook exempts politicians from our third-party
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fact-checking program. We have had this policy on the books for over a year now, posted publicly on our site
under our eligibility guidelines. This means that we will not send organic content or ads from politicians to our
third-party fact-checking partners for review. However, when a politician shares previously debunked content
including links, videos and photos, we plan to demote that content, display related information from factcheckers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements. You can find more about the third-party fact-checking
program and content eligibility here.
Facebook has had a newsworthiness exemption since 2016. This means that if someone makes a statement or
shares a post which breaks our community standards we will still allow it on our platform if we believe the
public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm. Today, I announced that from now on we will treat
speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard. However, in
keeping with the principle that we apply different standards to content for which we receive payment, this will
not apply to ads – if someone chooses to post an ad on Facebook, they must still fall within our Community
Standards and our advertising policies.
When we make a determination as to newsworthiness, we evaluate the public interest value of the piece of
speech against the risk of harm. When balancing these interests, we take a number of factors into consideration,
including country-specific circumstances, like whether there is an election underway or the country is at war;
the nature of the speech, including whether it relates to governance or politics; and the political structure of the
country, including whether the country has a free press. In evaluating the risk of harm, we will consider the
severity of the harm. Content that has the potential to incite violence, for example, may pose a safety risk that
outweighs the public interest value. Each of these evaluations will be holistic and comprehensive in nature, and
will account for international human rights standards.
Read the full speech below.
For those of you who don’t know me, which I suspect is most of you, I used to be a politician – I spent two
decades in European politics, including as Deputy Prime Minister in the UK for five years.
And perhaps because I acquired a taste for controversy in my time in politics, a year ago I came to work for
I don’t have long with you, so I just want to touch on three things: I want to say a little about Facebook; about
how we are getting ourselves ready for the 2020 election; and about our basic attitude towards political speech.
As a European, I’m struck by the tone of the debate in the US around Facebook. Here you have this global
success story, invented in America, based on American values, that is used by a third of the world’s population.
A company that has created 40,000 US jobs in the last two years, is set to create 40,000 more in the coming
years, and contributes tens of billions of dollars to the economy. And with plans to spend more than $250
billion in the US in the next four years.
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And while Facebook is subject to a lot of criticism in Europe, in India where I was earlier this month, and in
many other places, the only place where it is being proposed that Facebook and other big Silicon Valley
companies should be dismembered is here.
And whilst it might surprise you to hear me say this, I understand the underlying motive which leads people to
call for that remedy – even if I don’t agree with the remedy itself.
Because what people want is that there should be proper competition, diversity, and accountability in how big
tech companies operate – with success comes responsibility, and with power comes accountability.
But chopping up successful American businesses is not the best way to instill responsibility and accountability.
For a start, Facebook and other US tech companies not only face fierce competition from each other for every
service they provide – for photo and video sharing and messaging there are rival apps with millions or billions
of users – but they also face increasingly fierce competition from their Chinese rivals. Giants like Alibaba,
TikTok and WeChat.
More importantly, pulling apart globally successful American businesses won’t actually do anything to solve
the big issues we are all grappling with – privacy, the use of data, harmful content and the integrity of our
Those things can and will only be addressed by creating new rules for the internet, new regulations to make sure
companies like Facebook are accountable for the role they play and the decisions they take.
That is why we argue in favor of better regulation of big tech, not the break-up of successful American
Now, elections. It is no secret that Facebook made mistakes in 2016, and that Russia tried to use Facebook to
interfere with the election by spreading division and misinformation. But we’ve learned the lessons of 2016.
Facebook has spent the three years since building its defenses to stop that happening again.
Cracking down on fake accounts – the main source of fake news and malicious content –
preventing millions from being created every day;
Bringing in independent fact-checkers to verify content;
Recruiting an army of people – now 30,000 – and investing hugely in artificial intelligence
systems to take down harmful content.
And we are seeing results. Last year, a Stanford report found that interactions with fake news on Facebook was
down by two-thirds since 2016.
I know there’s also a lot of concern about so-called deepfake videos. We’ve recently launched an initiative
called the Deepfake Detection Challenge, working with the Partnership on AI, companies like Microsoft and
universities like MIT, Berkeley and Oxford, to find ways to detect this new form of manipulated content so that
we can identify them and take action.
But even when the videos aren’t as sophisticated – such as the now infamous Speaker Pelosi video – we know
that we need to do more.
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As Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged publicly, we didn’t get to that video quickly enough and too many
people saw it before we took action. We must and we will get better at identifying lightly manipulated content
before it goes viral and provide users with much more forceful information when they do see it.
We will be making further announcements in this area in the near future.
Crucially, we have also tightened our rules on political ads. Political advertising on Facebook is now far more
transparent than anywhere else – including TV, radio and print advertising.
People who want to run these ads now need to submit ID and information about their organization. We label the
ads and let you know who’s paid for them. And we put these ads in a library for seven years so that anyone can
Of course, stopping election interference is only part of the story when it comes to Facebook’s role in elections.
Which brings me to political speech.
Freedom of expression is an absolute founding principle for Facebook. Since day one, giving people a voice to
express themselves has been at the heart of everything we do. We are champions of free speech and defend it in
the face of attempts to restrict it. Censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are
In a mature democracy with a free press, political speech is a crucial part of how democracy functions. And it is
arguably the most scrutinized form of speech that exists.
In newspapers, on network and cable TV, and on social media, journalists, pundits, satirists, talk show hosts
and cartoonists – not to mention rival campaigns – analyze, ridicule, rebut and amplify the statements made by
At Facebook, our role is to make sure there is a level playing field, not to be a political participant ourselves.
To use tennis as an analogy, our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the
net at the correct height. But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to
them, not us.
We have a responsibility to protect the platform from outside interference, and to make sure that when people
pay us for political ads we make it as transparent as possib ...
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