Facebook’s Political Ad Policies Demand Greater Scrutiny

Alec Saslow | May 21, 2020

Ahead of Facebook’s upcoming shareholder meeting on May 27, Ann Ravel, Digital Deception Project Director at MapLight, issued the following statement:

While Facebook has garnered praise for its response to Covid-19 misinformation, its policies regarding political ads demand greater scrutiny—especially in a crucial election year. A shareholder resolution from socially responsible investment firm Harrington Investments, on the table at Facebook’s May 27 shareholder meeting, aims to do just that. The resolution calls for Facebook’s Board of Directors to assess the company’s political ad policies—especially the policy of not fact-checking posts and advertising by politicians, which effectively greenlights them to spread lies and disinformation. Facebook opposes the resolution, citing arguments about free expression and its existing transparency measures for political advertising.

The fact is that Facebook has shown itself willing and able to address Covid-19 misinformation, but unwilling to tackle disinformation from politicians on topics that could have serious implications for our democracy and the public interest. This policy creates a double standard: posts and ads from people who Facebook identifies as politicians are exempt from fact-checking, even as ads by other political speakers remain subject to it. After the policy was announced last fall, more than 200 of Facebook’s own employees signed a letter objecting to this stance.

Moreover, Facebook cites its verification and transparency measures for political ads as reason to block further scrutiny, but these measures are insufficient. For example, the Ad Library does not offer information about how political ads are targeted. Facebook offers advertisers the ability to microtarget narrow audiences based on data it has collected about people’s interests and online activity, voter data, and other criteria, but the public has no way of knowing who is being shown what ad or why, and remains vulnerable to divisive and manipulative messaging.

This shareholder resolution draws attention to an important issue that should not be dismissed. Regardless of the outcome, it is incumbent on us to continue to scrutinize Facebook’s policies and call for greater transparency and accountability. The stakes for our democracy are high.