Facebook to allow users to block political advertisements

Move comes as critics express scepticism about social media companies’ ability to police content on their platforms.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company is launching a new voter registration effort on its platform [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company is launching a new voter registration effort on its platform [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]

Technology company executives in the United States – under fire from all corners of the political spectrum for how they deal with problematic speech online – will appear before US legislators on Thursday to answer questions about their efforts to curtail foreign influence and election security heading into the 2020 general election in November.

Officials from Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc will participate in a remote hearing convened by the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives that is also expected to delve into misinformation campaigns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak and recent protests over racism and policing.

Witnesses scheduled to appear include Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy; Nick Pickles, director of Global Public Policy Strategy and Development at Twitter, and Richard Salgado, director for Law Enforcement and Information Security at Google.

Facebook’s plan

The hearing comes as government officials, critics from both the right and left wings of the political spectrum and Americans are expressing increasing scepticism about social media companies’ ability to make the right decisions about what should be allowed on their platforms.

In an effort to get ahead of the clamour, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in an opinion article in the USA Today newspaper that the platform would launch an ambitious effort to spur new voter registration and give users the option of opting out of political advertising altogether.

Zuckerberg stopped short, however, of agreeing to remove false or misleading statements from politicians despite calls from Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and others to do so.

“Everyone wants to see politicians held accountable for what they say – and I know many people want us to moderate and remove more of their content,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We have rules against speech that will cause imminent physical harm or suppress voting, and no one is exempt from them. But accountability only works if we can see what those seeking our votes are saying, even if we viscerally dislike what they say.”

Facebook said it would display a Voting Information Center at the top of US users’ news feeds and aims to help four million people register to vote, double its goal for 2016. Facebook also said it would affix labels to political advertisements shared by users on their own feeds, closing what critics have said for years was a glaring loophole in the company’s election transparency measures.

The world’s biggest social network has attached a “paid for by” disclaimer to political advertisements since 2018 but the label disappeared once people shared the advertisements to their own feeds, which critics said undermined its utility and allowed misinformation to continue spreading unchecked.

‘Complacent’

Several US civil rights and other advocacy groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on Wednesday called on large advertisers to stop Facebook advertising campaigns next month. The #StopHateforProfit campaign said the social network is not doing enough to curtail racist and violent content on its platform.

NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson said Facebook and Zuckerberg are “no longer simply negligent, but in fact complacent in the spread of misinformation”.

Facebook is far from the only tech company under fire at the moment. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that officials with the US Department of Justice are expected to recommend changes to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that would hold tech companies more liable legally for harmful online content. The 1996 act effectively shields tech companies from lawsuits over content posted to their platforms by third parties.

In May, US President Donald Trump – miffed that Twitter had tagged tweets of his about mail-in voting as false or misleading – signed an executive order calling for legislation that would scrap or weaken Section 230, a move that Twitter at the time said would “threaten the future of online speech”.

On Wednesday, Republican US Senator Ted Cruz called out Google after NBC News reported that the search giant notified the publishers of two right-wing websites that they were in danger of being “demonetised” – or having the advertising revenue they receive via Google’s AdSense cut off – because of racially inflammatory comments on their sites.

Google’s decision – which the company said was merely a warning and had not taken effect in the case of one of the sites – sparked a firestorm among conservatives on Tuesday, who charged that Google was making such threats against publishers of The Federalist and ZeroHedge for political reasons while ignoring such comments on its own platforms such as YouTube.

“The culture of free speech in this country is under attack and Google is helping to lead the charge,” Cruz alleged in his letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“Whereas Americans once understood that the best response to speech was more speech, some Americans, with the help of some of the most powerful companies on the planet, are now pressing to silence and punish those expressing views that do not align with the prevailing and ever-shifting progressive orthodoxy.”

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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