Facebook will stop accepting new political ads a week before the US presidential election

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Facebook will stop taking new political advertising in the United States in the seven days leading up to the election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said today as part of a series of steps the company is taking to protect against election interference.

“The US elections are just two months away, and with COVID-19 affecting communities across the country, I’m concerned about the challenges people could face when voting,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post announcing the move. “I’m also worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country.”

Candidates and political action committees will continue to be able to buy ads that have already received at least one impression by October 27th, the company said. They can also choose to target those existing ads at different groups or adjust their level of spending. But they won’t be able to launch new creative campaigns — a hedge against candidates spreading misinformation during a particularly fraught moment in the company’s history.

The move represents a compromise between critics who demanded that the company stop selling advertising altogether and political campaigners who argued that ads benefit lesser-known candidates and can be essential for get-out-the-vote efforts. It is not likely to placate critics who argue that Facebook’s policy against fact-checking political ads allows it to profit from misinformation and the steady erosion of American democracy. But it may prevent the worst efforts to spread hoaxes and dread in an election that has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, voter fears over physically going to the polls, and a new reliance on mail-in voting.

Other steps announced by Facebook today include:

  • Putting the company’s “Voter Information Center” at the top of the Facebook and Instagram feeds. The widget contains accurate, verified information and videos about how to vote, and will remain at the top of the feed until Election Day. It will begin appearing this week for all US users, Facebook said.
  • Using the Voter Information Center to educate Americans about the fact that the winner of the presidency may not be declared the night of the election, as mail-in ballots could take days or weeks to be counted.
  • Providing live, official election results as they become available through a partnership with Reuters. The information will appear in the Voter Information Center, and Facebook will also deliver updates via push notifications.
  • Removing posts that contain “clear misinformation” about COVID-19 and voting.
  • Adding a link to accurate information about COVID-19 to posts that attempt to discourage people from voting by invoking fears about the disease.
  • Adding a label to any candidate or campaign post that attempts to declare victory before the results are official. The label will direct users to information from Reuters.
  • Adding a label to posts that attempt to cast doubt on the outcome of the election.

The company also said it would expand its policies against voter suppression to include “implicit misrepresentations” about the process, even if they don’t discourage voting. The statement “I hear anybody with a driver’s license gets a ballot this year” will no longer be allowed under the expanded policy, Facebook said.

Facebook’s work with election officials to identify posts aimed at suppressing voters will begin starting now, the company said. In the past, it worked with local election officials starting 72 hours before the election to look for posts with misleading information about voting. Given this election’s expected reliance on mail-in voting, that work needs to begin today, the company said.

Finally, Facebook will temporarily restrict the number of people you can forward links to in Messenger to five per message. That move began August 17th and will roll out globally later this month, Facebook said. The company adopted similar restrictions for WhatsApp last year.

News that Facebook was considering a short-term political ad ban broke in July, when Zuckerberg discussed it in an all-hands meeting with his staff. The company has previously made all ads on the service viewable in a public library, and allowed users to “turn off” political ads.

Still, other platforms have taken a more restrictive approach. Twitter banned political advertising last year, and Google acted to limit campaigns’ ability to micro-target voters.

“I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election — even if it takes time for every vote to be counted,” Zuckerberg said in his post. “We’ve voted during global pandemics before. We can do this. But it’s going to take a concerted effort by all of us — political parties and candidates, election authorities, the media and social networks, and ultimately voters as well — to live up to our responsibilities.”

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