In the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the company exploited Facebook to target and manipulate swing voters in the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook did an internal review to examine the company's role in spreading misinformation and fake news that may have affected the election, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced. In 2018, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was making changes to be better prepared to stop misinformation in the 2020 election. Critics criticized the changes as modest, however. As WSJ reporters Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman detailed, Facebook executives largely rejected the internal study's recommendations to reduce polarization on Facebook. Doing so might be "paternalistic" and might open Facebook up to criticisms of being biased against conservatives.
Despite the concerns about fake news and misinformation affecting the 2020 election, Facebook took the position that fact checking for misinformation did not apply to the posts and ads by politicians in the same way as they applied to everyone else. Facebook's policy was even more permissive to political ads and politicians. As shown below, Facebook justified this hands-off position as advancing political speech: "Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is. Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words."
Facebook's Fact-Checking Exception for Politicians and Political Ads
By contrast, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to ban political ads in 2019 and to monitor the content politicians just as Twitter does with all other users for misinformation and other violations of Twitter's policy. Yet Zuckerberg persisted in his "hands off" approach: "“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online." Zuckerberg even said Twitter was wrong to add warnings to two of President Trump's tweets as misleading (regarding mail-in ballots) and glorifying violence (Trump said, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts" regarding the protests of the Minneapolis police Derek Chauvin killing of George Floyd) Back in October 2019, Zuckerberg defended his approach in the face of withering questioning by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In May and June 2020, Zuckerberg persisted in his "hands off" approach. Some Facebook employees quit in protest, while others staged a walkout. Yet Zuckerberg still persisted.
On June 17, 2020, Color of Change, which is "the nation’s largest online racial justice organization," organized with NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Sleeping Giants, Free Press, and Common Sense Media a boycott of advertising on Facebook for the month of July. The boycott was labeled #StopHateforProfit. Within just 10 days, over 130 companies joined the ad boycott of Facebook. It included many large companies, such as Ben and Jerry's, Coca-Cola, Dockers, Eddie Bauer, Levi's, The North Face, REI, Unilver, and Verizon.
On June 26, 2020, Zuckerberg finally announced some changes to Facebook's policy. The biggest changes:
(1) Moderating hateful content in ads. As Zuckerberg explained on his Facebook page, "We already restrict certain types of content in ads that we allow in regular posts, but we want to do more to prohibit the kind of divisive and inflammatory language that has been used to sow discord. So today we're prohibiting a wider category of hateful content in ads. Specifically, we're expanding our ads policy to prohibit claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others. We're also expanding our policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt, dismissal or disgust directed at them."
(2) Adding labels to posts, including from candidates, that may violate Facebook's policy. As Zuckerberg explained, "Often, seeing speech from politicians is in the public interest, and in the same way that news outlets will report what a politician says, we think people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms.
"We will soon start labeling some of the content we leave up because it is deemed newsworthy, so people can know when this is the case. We'll allow people to share this content to condemn it, just like we do with other problematic content, because this is an important part of how we discuss what's acceptable in our society -- but we'll add a prompt to tell people that the content they're sharing may violate our policies.
"To clarify one point: there is no newsworthiness exemption to content that incites violence or suppresses voting. Even if a politician or government official says it, if we determine that content may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote, we will take that content down. Similarly, there are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies I'm announcing here today."
Facebook's new labeling of content of candidates sounds very similar to what Zuckerberg criticized Twitter as being wrong. And Facebook's new policy on moderating hateful content in ads that "are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others," including "people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status," seems a positive step to prevent Facebook being a platform to sow racial discord, which is a goal of Russian operatives according to U.S. intelligence.
Facebook new policy on moderation of political ads and posts by politicians and others
The organizers of the boycott, however, were not impressed with Facebook's changes. They issued a statement quoted by NPR: "None of this will be vetted or verified — or make a dent in the problem on the largest social media platform on the planet. We have been down this road before with Facebook. They have made apologies in the past. They have taken meager steps after each catastrophe where their platform played a part. But this has to end now."