Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been mired in controversy over its role as a potential political actor. In the aftermath of the presidential race four years ago, Facebook has been faced with multiple accusations that they played a role in the dissemination of misinformation and propaganda that may have influenced the election.
Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns) were two of the main social media websites that Russia turned to in 2016 in its attempts to sow conflict and spread incorrect information to influence the election.
In 2018, CEO Mark Zuckerberg ultimately had to undergo a two-day congressional hearing in which he was asked nearly six hundred questions. This occurred in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm that harvested data from up to 87 million Facebook users, something which allowed them to develop detailed psychological profiles of voters, profiles which may have been used to influence campaigning procedures.
Concerns over Facebook’s role in influencing public perception of politics and news events can be seen in an article published by the Atlantic. The article, called “What Facebook Did To American Democracy,” highlights this quote from Steve Bannon, a former leader at Breitbart who claimed that, “Facebook is what propelled Breitbart to a massive audience. We know its power.”
Breitbart’s success has been a cause of concern for many, especially for those on the left. It has faced many accusations of being biased towards the extreme right, and Media Bias Fact Check ranks it as a questionable source due to findings of: “Propaganda, Conspiracy, [and] Failed Fact Checks.”
This turbulent history, and constant cries of ‘fake news’ from the left and the right alike, have led many to pressure Facebook to adopt more stringent policies on political propaganda and misinformation.
And though it has resisted such policy changes in the past, Facebook has finally altered some of their policies to reflect these concerns.
In a post made Thursday September 3, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will no longer accept political advertisements in the week leading up to the election. In addition to this new policy, Facebook has also recently doubled back on some of their stances on political misinformation, cracking down on material specifically designed to disenfranchise voters, such as ads that tell people they can turn in mail-in ballots three days after election day.
This choice been met with concern from the right and the left. The Trump campaign has criticized this choice, accusing Facebook of censoring politicians, while some left-aligned people worry that the void left by the ads will be filled by right-wing publications.
Others, though, have critiqued Facebook for not doing enough
Vox pointed out that banning the acceptance of political ads in the week before the election does not actually keep campaigns from running already-existing ads. Nor, they report, is Facebook doing anything to keep these ads from being distributed using “microtargeting,” which is when Facebook runs specifically-designed ads to small groups of people. And while Facebook is restricting some misinformation, it has not entirely reversed its allowances for misinformation in political ads, which will still not face repercussions for lying, even with the ban.
Though Zuckerberg acknowledged in his post that there is widespread concern over integrity of this election, he also reinforced that Facebook currently has no plans to make any more changes to their policies prior to the election.
Facebook’s updated policies are designed to help mitigate confusion during this upcoming election. To others, though, Facebook’s policy changes seem to feel like attempting to put a band-aid on a bullet hole. Too little, and potentially too late.
The Atlantic, What Facebook Did to American Democracy: And why it was so hard to see it coming: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/
Vox, Facebook won’t stop Facebook from spreading lies about the election: https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/9/3/21420022/facebook-election-political-ads-ban-2020-trump
The New York Times, Facebook Moves to Limit Election Chaos in November: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/03/technology/facebook-election-chaos-november.html
Mark Zuckerberg, statement on election policy: https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10112270823363411