Facebook Might be Considering a Ban on Political Ads

Bloomberg reported that Facebook is considering imposing a ban on political ads on its social network in the days leading up to the November election. This is according to “people familiar with the company’s thinking”. I find this surprising.

Recently, an independent audit found Facebook lacking in several important areas. The summary of the audit pointed out many ways that Facebook needed to improve. Here are just a few points from the summary:

  •  The Auditors noted that Facebook’s definition of protecting free speech meant allowing harmful and divisive rhetoric that amplifies hate speech and threatens civil rights. “When it means that powerful politicians do not have to abide by the same rules as everyone else does, a hierarchy of speech is created that privileges certain voices over less powerful voices.”
  • The auditors have “grave concerns that the combination of the company’s decision to exempt politicians from fact-checking and the precedents set by its recent decisions on President Trump’s posts, leaves the door open for the platform to be used by other politicians to interfere with voting. If politicians are free to mislead people about official voting methods (by labeling ballots illegal or making other misleading statements that go unchecked for example) and are allowed to use not-so-subtle dog whistles with impunity to incite violence against groups advocating for racial justice, this does not bode well for the hostile voting environment that can be facilitated by Facebook in the United States.”

I want to believe that Facebook read the audit, and came away from it realizing that refusing to fact-check the posts made by politicians, and allowing politicians to break Facebook’s rules, was a bad idea. The company has done political ad blackouts before elections in other countries – but this would be the first time (to my knowledge) that Facebook is considering doing that before the U.S. 2020 election.

One thing to keep in mind is that Bloomberg is not reporting that this ad blackout is going to happen. It appears to be something Facebook is considering. That doesn’t mean it will become policy.

The other thing to consider is that, as Bloomberg points out, Facebook’s political advertising is a very small part of Facebook’s business. It is possible that Facebook is considering this small change – for a very limited time-span – so it can act like it did something in regards to the audit. Banning political ads is not going to undue the damage already done by politicians who post misinformation.