Facebook extends ban on political ads amid misinformation blitz

Facebook says the measure to combat misinformation will continue, even as US state Georgia prepares for Senate run-offs.

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook CEO
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee [File: Erin Scott/Reuters]

Facebook on Wednesday said its post-election ban on political advertisements would likely last another month, raising concerns from campaigns and groups eager to reach voters for key Georgia races in January that will decide control of the Senate.

The ban, one of Facebook’s measures to combat misinformation and other abuses on its site, was supposed to last about a week but could be extended. Alphabet Inc’s Google also appeared to be sticking with its post-election political ad ban.

Facebook confirmed the extension in a blog post: “The temporary pause for ads about politics and social issues in the US continues to be in place as part of our ongoing efforts to protect the election. Advertisers can expect this to last another month, though there may be an opportunity to resume these ads sooner.”

Baseless claims about the election reverberated around social media this week as President Donald Trump challenged the validity of the outcome, even as state officials reported no significant irregularities and legal experts cautioned he had little chance to overturn Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

In one Facebook group created on Sunday, which rapidly grew to nearly 400,000 members by Wednesday, members calling for a nationwide recount swapped unfounded accusations about alleged election fraud and state vote counts every few seconds.

A supporter of US President Donald Trump holds a sign during a ‘Stop the Steal’ protest after the 2020 US presidential election was called by the media for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, in front of the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix [Jim Urquhart/Reuters]

Google declined to answer news agency Reuters’ questions about the length of its ad pause, although one advertiser said the company had floated the possibility of extending it through or after December.

A Google spokeswoman previously said the company would lift its ban based on factors such as the time needed for votes to be counted and whether there was civil unrest.

The extensions mean the top two digital advertising behemoths, which together control more than half the market, are not accepting election ads ahead of two hotly contested US Senate runoff races in Georgia, including ads aimed at increasing voter turnout.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, along with the Senate campaigns of Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, called for an exemption for the Georgia races so they could make voters aware of upcoming deadlines.

“It is driving us absolutely bonkers,” Mark Jablonowski, managing partner of DSPolitical, a digital firm that works with Democratic causes, told Reuters.

Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, told Reuters he thought the companies’ concerns about ads on the election outcome did not require a blanket ban. “This is something that deserves a scalpel and they’re using a rusty ax,” he said.

Facebook Director of Product Management Rob Leathern said the world’s biggest social network lacked “the technical ability in the short term to enable political ads by state or by advertiser”.

The companies declined to say when they would lift other “break-glass” election measures introduced for unpaid posts, like Facebook’s demotions of content that its systems predict may be misinformation.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said those emergency measures would not be permanent, but that rollback was “not imminent.”

Google’s YouTube, which is labelling all election-related videos with information about the outcome said it would stick with that approach “as long as it’s necessary”.

The video-sharing company bans “demonstrably false” claims about the election process but has used the tool sparingly, saying hyperbolic statements about a political party “stealing” the election does not violate the policy.

However, Twitter has stopped using its most restrictive election-related warning labels, which hid and limited engagement on violating tweets. Instead, the company is now using lighter-touch labels that “provide additional context,” spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said.

Twitter placed a label reading “this claim about election fraud is disputed” on two of Trump’s tweets Tuesday morning but each was retweeted more than 80,000 times by that evening.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies, Reuters