Warren turns up heat over Facebook's ad rules

Warren turns up heat over Facebook's ad rules
© Greg Nash

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster MORE (D-Mass.), a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate, is turning up the heat in her battle with one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, Facebook, as she shines a spotlight on the company’s rules on political ads. 

Warren’s campaign ran an ad promoting a false claim about Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergWho killed the California dream? If you think it was liberals, think again Facebook touts benefits of personalized ads in new campaign Mellman: White working-class politics MORE over the weekend, highlighting the challenge the company confronts as it works to stave off disinformation while also sidestepping questions about the veracity of political arguments.


Critics have argued that Facebook is abdicating responsibility over its powerful platform, which reaches more than 2 billion people globally, while the company and free speech advocates have insisted it’s risky for Facebook to take more control over what political candidates are allowed to say. 

“The policies they’ve announced are an explicit invitation to politicians to spread falsehoods,” Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, told The Hill. “And that is not something that we ought to applaud.” 

Warren’s advertisement, placed on Friday, taunted Facebook by claiming Zuckerberg had endorsed President TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE.

“Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” Warren’s campaign wrote in the first line of a Facebook advertisement, which featured a picture of President Trump and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shaking hands. “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘How could this possibly be true?’ ”

“Well, it’s not,” the advertisement reads. “But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.”

According to Facebook’s archives, the post has accrued hundreds of thousands of views and cost Warren’s campaign thousands of dollars to run. 

Facebook, though, is not backing down. 

“If Senator Warren wants to say things she knows to be untrue, we believe Facebook should not be in the position of censoring that speech,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement Saturday.

Warren’s ad was a shot at Facebook’s handling of another controversy involving a Trump campaign advertisement accusing former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden offers support to union organizing efforts Senate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits MORE of corruption without proof.

Trump’s ad claims without evidence that Biden offered $1 billion to Ukraine to bail out his son Hunter Biden from potential prosecution.

Cable networks, most prominently CNN, refused to run the ad based on their policies against promoting lies. But Facebook has refused to remove the ad.

In letters, statements and its official policies, Facebook has emphasized that it believes politicians should be exempt from many of its rules on speech.

Facebook runs a third-party fact-checking program, which adds disclaimers to posts that can be proven false, but it now says that politicians’ posts and advertisements will not go through that system. 

When Biden pressed Facebook last week over its decision to run the Trump campaign advertisement, Facebook’s public policy director of global elections, Katie Harbath, replied, “When a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third-party fact-checkers.”

“These policies apply to organic and paid content from politicians — including the ad by President Trump that you reference in your letter,” she wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Hill. 

That led Warren — already one of the company’s most prominent critics — to challenge the company on its own turf.

For Warren the move could pay political dividends.

Democrats and prominent tech critics have clamored to force Facebook’s hand, claiming the company enables — and profits off of — political disinformation when it does not take action against high-profile instances of falsehoods in advertisements. And Facebook has faced heat across the political spectrum, including from conservatives who allege that social media companies are biased against them.

But the company has held tightly to its position, even doubling down in a tweet at Warren on Saturday night.

“Broadcast stations across the country have aired this ad nearly 1,000 times, as required by law,” Facebook’s public relations Twitter account tweeted to Warren, referring to the Trump advertisement she has been criticizing. “FCC [Federal Communications Commission] doesn’t want broadcast companies censoring candidates’ speech. We agree it’s better to let voters—not companies—decide.” 

The tweet drew Facebook deeper into the contentious debate over its role in handling political speech, reinvigorating long-standing questions over whether Facebook should be subject to regulations similar to those imposed on public radio and television stations.  

The FCC has strong oversight of broadcast television, issuing licenses that allow specific stations to operate and ensuring they abide by the thorny set of regulations around issues including hoaxes, profane content and political broadcasting. 

Under federal law, broadcasters are not allowed to pick and choose which advertisements to run. 

CNN was allowed to decline the advertisement because cable networks are not subject to the same rules.

Facebook’s advertising system also is not subject to any of those regulations. The company has typically resisted any efforts to bring the platform under that level of government scrutiny. 

Damon McCoy, a researcher who focuses on Facebook’s political ads archive, noted that Facebook clearly could have followed CNN’s lead. 

“It feels like Facebook basically abdicating responsibility for messages that they’re spreading on their platform,” McCoy told The Hill. “They’ve accepted payment to deliver to very precise, customized audiences.” 

In her letter to Biden’s campaign, Facebook’s Harbath argued that political speech is the most “scrutinized” speech there is. But McCoy said political speech for hypertargeted online audiences fails to get the same scrutiny.

The Trump campaign paid thousands of dollars to run the “Corruption” spot, a small fraction of the $587,625 it spent on ads between Oct. 4 and 10 and the over $20 million it has spent since May 2018.

Twitter and YouTube have also received thousands of dollars to run the controversial ad on their platforms. A Twitter spokesperson said the ad does not violate its own policies.

Warren’s campaign did not immediately respond to questions about whether she will be reaching out to those companies as well.

Warren has criticized the tech industry at large, but her most intense public fights have been with Facebook. She has called for the company to be broken up, condemning its market power and acquisitions of smaller companies. In leaked audio released two weeks ago, Zuckerberg called Warren’s threats “existential.”

That dynamic is likely to intensify the latest clash between the two.

“I think Facebook is prepared to deal with almost any kind of regulation they can roll with except for the idea of being broken up on antitrust grounds, and she’s the main spokesperson for that idea,” said Barrett, of NYU.

“I think that helps explain why there’s an extra dimension to the edge that Facebook has in its reaction to her.”

Max Greenwood contributed.