By Jon Swartz
Facebook Inc.’s first action to limit political advertising in the U.S. with a ban of news ads in the week preceding the Nov. 3 elections announced Thursday comes amid unrelenting criticism that its platform fuels misinformation and is a haven for far-right groups.
Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who in particular has taken heat for political manipulation of the social-media company’s platform during the 2016 U.S. elections, made the announcement early Thursday in another attempt to tamp down meddling.
“It’s important that campaigns can run ‘get out the vote campaigns’, and I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims,” Zuckerberg said.
The specter of voter manipulation has weighed heavily on Facebook. The company is running what it calls the largest voting information campaign in American history, with a goal of helping 4 million people to register and vote. Last month, Facebook launched a Voting Information Center to help users with accurate, easy-to-find information about voting wherever they live. The addendum will link to a new voter information hub similar to one about COVID-19 that Facebook says has been seen by billions of people globally.
See also: Facebook hardens digital defense for misinformation ahead of elections
However, Facebook’s latest election-integrity move was immediately met with skepticism from privacy groups that argue Facebook should be fact-checking and removing political ads, in addition to intentionally deceptive posts, that proliferate across its platform that includes Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Some openly questioned why the ban didn’t extend longer, and if money trumped principle.
“Nothing more than a PR stunt designed to distract from the fact that Facebook is the single biggest vector of dangerous misinformation and voter suppression campaigns in the United States. It falls well short of even being a half measure,” Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of national women’s organization UltraViolet, said in a statement.
Others were more positive about the new policy. “It’s a strange feeling to read something by Mark Zuckerberg and say, ‘Yup, yup, yup,’” said Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of First Draft, a nonprofit group that combats misinformation. “I’m pretty excited by it.”
Election interference remains top of mind at Facebook, which is as concerned about vote counting in the days and perhaps weeks following Nov. 3. Officials at Facebook, Twitter Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.29% and elsewhere have hinted there could be attempts by politically motivated groups to question the legitimacy of votes, including mail-in ballots.
Read more: Facebook and Twitter are concerned about what is going to happen after Election Day
Facebook, which is under investigation for anti-competitive business practices by the Federal Trade Commission, faces immense political pressure for the torrent of information it fire-hoses to its 2.7 billion monthly active users.
Despite the relatively civil relationship between Zuckerberg and President Donald J. Trump, who has nearly 31 million followers on the social network, it might only take a mild disciplinary action by Facebook over Trump’s profile feed to raise his ire and prompt regulatory punishment, Anurag Chandra, a partner at venture-capital firm Fort Ross Ventures, told MarketWatch.
The White House said as much in a terse statement Thursday.
“In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, President Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America,” Samantha Zager, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, said in a statement. “When millions of voters will be making their decisions, the President will be silenced by the Silicon Valley Mafia, who will at the same time allow corporate media to run their biased ads to swing voters in key states.”
The campaign of Trump’s Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., had no immediate comment.
Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -2.24% shares declined 3.8% in trading Thursday in a as tech stocks were routed in a selloff.