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Facebook still isn’t clear about why it won’t take down false political ads

At Code Media on Monday, a vice president at Facebook said the company can’t legally take down political ads. Soon after, Facebook walked those comments back.

Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook, onstage at the 2019 Code Media conference in Los Angeles.
Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook, onstage at the 2019 Code Media conference in Los Angeles.
Tori Stolper for Vox Media
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Facebook has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months over its political ads policy that allows politicians to lie in ads. On Monday, one of Facebook’s top marketers again defended the policy and said the company has no plans to change it, insisting that it’s up to voters to decide what messages resonate and are true, even if they’re false.

“That’s not a role that Facebook should be playing and interfering with democracy,” said said Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions at Facebook, in an interview with Recode’s Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference in Los Angeles on Monday. But critics have argued that Facebook’s policy allows political campaigns to do that very thing.

Since the 2016 election, Facebook has been forced to reckon with the ways its platform can be weaponized to spread disinformation, undermine democracy, and influence politics. The company insists it’s trying to do better, largely by promising to be more transparent. (Everson declared that Facebook is “the most transparent ad platform in the world”).

But when it comes to substantive changes, the social media giant keeps saying it’s government regulators’ responsibility to figure out what to do. Facebook knows that Washington, DC, moves slowly; it will be a long time, if ever, before US lawmakers pass regulations on issues such as privacy, data collection, and ads for social media platforms. And so in the meantime, Facebook gets to keep calling the shots — and avoiding responsibility when it doesn’t.

In September, Facebook faced strong backlash when it refused to take down an ad run by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign that made false claims about former Vice President Joe Biden. In the months since, the controversy surrounding this decision has snowballed. High-profile Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have pressed Facebook on the matter, and some progressive groups have tried to test Facebook’s policy out to make a point about its pitfalls. But Facebook has dug in on the policy, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg vocally defending it in public.

Everson pointed out that when Warren’s team put out a fake ad claiming that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump’s reelection bid as a way to exemplify the implications of the policy, Facebook let the ad stay up. “We stuck to the principle,” she said. Of course, the ad acknowledged it was a lie — that was the point.

And Facebook has bent its rules on this one already: When progressive marketer Adriel Hampton filed to run for California governor earlier this year so he could run fake ads on Facebook, the company shut him down because they said it was a ploy.

Some have floated the idea that one potential solution would be for Facebook to consider limiting political ad targeting, which Twitter recently said it plans to do with regard to issue ads. (At the end of the week, Twitter will ban political ads entirely.) When asked by Kafka for updates on that front, Everson said that’s actually not on the table. “We are not talking about changing the targeting,” she said.

Soon after the interview, Everson told Axios reporter Sara Fischer that she shouldn’t have been so definitive and that nothing is off the table for Facebook.

When Kafka asked whether Facebook would consider a political ad blackout ahead of elections, Everson responded, yet again, that the company is working on more transparency.

At least one of the reasons why Facebook is so reticent to more carefully regulate political content on its platform is that it’s platform is so big that it would struggle to effectively do so. When making this point, Everson reminded the audience of a scandal that unfolded earlier this year around a doctored video that spread online that misleadingly made House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to be drunk. Despite the video being obviously fake, the company refused to take it down, and it’s been viewed millions of times on Facebook.

“If you’re going to take the Pelosi video down, then why not take down the millions of videos that have been doctored about Trump, about Bush, about Obama, about celebrities? We haven’t,” Everson told Kafka.

Facebook’s politics problem isn’t going away

Although Everson’s appearance at Code Media touched on many points about the company and its ad business, the audience kept focusing on Facebook’s decisions on politics and news coverage during the question segment of the interview.

When pressed on Facebook’s refusal to fact-check political ads, Everson tried to defend the company’s stance by referencing the rules that govern how broadcasters must handle political advertisements. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission has extensive guidelines for television and radio broadcasters around political advertising that bar broadcasters from censoring ads or from taking down ones that make false claims. Those guidelines don’t apply to online platforms, including Facebook, but the company has consistently tried to hide behind them.

“We have no ability, legally, to tell a political candidate that they are not allowed to run their ad,” Everson said. That’s not true.

After the interview, a Facebook spokeswoman walked back the comments and said that Everson misspoke when she said Facebook was legally barred from refusing to run political ads.

An audience member also asked Everson why Facebook has decided to allow right-wing website Breitbart to be listed in its new News tab, which is ostensibly an indication that Breitbart offers trusted news, despite being a known source of propaganda. “We’re treating them as a news source; I wouldn’t use the term ‘trusted news,’” Everson said, pointing out that Facebook will also include “far-left” publications. That raises questions about Facebook’s standards for determining the “integrity” of the news sources it includes in its tab, which Facebook touted when it launched the feature in October.

Although Facebook’s missteps have continued in the aftermath of the 2016 election, including security breaches and more disinformation campaigns, Everson says she believes the company really has changed and is not the same company it was three years ago.

“I wouldn’t have stayed at Facebook” if the company hadn’t changed, Everson insisted. “If I didn’t see those cultural shifts, it would have been really hard for me to look people in the eye and have the confidence to stay at the company.”

Update: Updated with clarifications from Facebook after the interview regarding its political ads policies.