By Jesselyn Cook
“LEARN THE TRUTH,” President Donald Trump’s campaign declared in a Facebook ad that launched last week. “Joe Biden PROMISED Ukraine $1 BILLION DOLLARS if they fired the prosecutor investigating his son’s company.” Facebook users were outraged: “What Biden did is what Congress should be investigating,” one wrote. “Killary/Biden/Obama and their dealings for self enrichment needs to be thoroughly investigated,” added another. “Truth/facts are all that matter.”
The premise of the still-active ad is false: There’s no evidence that Trump’s potential 2020 presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, pressured Ukraine to fire its prosecutor general for reasons relating to his son Hunter Biden.
But facts like that aren’t important — at least not to Facebook.
Late last month, as Democrats announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump over his own dealings with Ukraine, Facebook quietly tweaked the language of its misinformation policy, effectively giving political advertisers a public green light to spread blatant lies. Trump’s team, which has since been pumping big money into a barrage of Facebook ads urging people to donate to his “Official Impeachment Defense Task Force,” is doing just that: A number of its latest ads have featured calculated falsehoods — the kind that are designed to provoke people to click “Share” and pull out their wallets.
The strategy seems to be working. Over the past couple of weeks, the Trump campaign has welcomed a flood of new donors helping to bring in millions of dollars, and Trump’s approval rating recently reached its highest level this year.
“Facebook is the president’s platform of choice for advertising. His supporters are very much on Facebook, and his campaign has spent so much money trying to rally his base to defend him,” said Kyle Tharp, communications director of Acronym, a progressive digital political strategy organization. “It’s the M.O. of the Trump campaign to capitalize on these big, cultural breaking news moments for its own financial gain.”
Until recently, Facebook’s misinformation policy page stated that ads with “deceptive, false, or misleading content” were prohibited, but the page has since been updated to state that only ads featuring “claims debunked by third-party fact checkers” are prohibited, as first reported by journalist Judd Legum in his newsletter Popular Info.
It’s a subtle but important distinction that now makes clear a loophole for politicians, as Facebook “exempts politicians from our third-party fact-checking program,” per the site’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg (a former politician). “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”
Essentially, politicians can officially lie to voters with impunity in paid ads on one of the world’s largest advertising platforms.
“By profiting off politicians selling false statements to the public, Facebook is complicit in the erosion of our civic health, discourse and democracy,” Gaurav Laroia, senior policy counsel at Free Press, said in a statement. “The company should show some courage and stand up for the truth — at least in its advertising policies.”
According to Facebook, its stance on misinformation in political ads is nothing new. The company maintains it has long sold ads to politicians without holding them to a standard of truth, and that it recently updated the language of its policy to make this clear.
Although regulations for ads in newspapers and broadcast media are often poorly enforced, news outlets have pushed back against ads containing fake news: CNN recently refused to air two of Trump’s campaign ads, including one that the network said “makes assertions that have been proven demonstrably false by various news outlets.” And, unlike some Facebook ads, those featured in newspapers and on television and radio are subject to public scrutiny by journalists and others.
Micro-targeted Facebook ads, or “dark ads,” which are tailored for specific audiences, can escape such scrutiny because they’re not always visible to or accessible by the general public. Facebook rolled out a searchable library of ads to address concerns surrounding transparency this year, but the library includes limited information, and researchers and reporters have criticized it for being incomplete. And, as the 2016 election demonstrated, print and broadcast advertising have slipped behind the remarkable reach and impact of their digital counterpart. Facebook in particular played an extraordinary role in Trump’s victory that year, in large part by housing covert disinformation campaigns by Russian operatives and by allowing Trump’s team to engage in micro-targeting and voter suppression tactics.
The Trump campaign has long used “misleading, false and defamatory” messaging in its political communications with voters, both online and offline, Tharp said. But now, with Facebook’s public blessing and an unparalleled investment in impeachment-related ads on the 2-billion-user platform, the gloves are officially off.
“The way that Facebook prioritizes content delivery makes it so that inflammatory content really works,” Tharp noted. “It spreads like wildfire on the site.”
Facebook has had a consistently troubled relationship with the truth. Despite its repeated vows to crack down on fake news, the company has maintained that demonstrably false content is not necessarily subject to deletion on its platform. Earlier this year, it let a video that was maliciously edited to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem drunk go viral under its watch.
Trump’s deceptive attack ad against Biden — which is one of multiple anti-impeachment ads the Trump campaign bought to push false narratives about the former vice president — was debunked by at least two Facebook-approved fact-checkers (this was done independently from Facebook’s fact-checking program, however, which does not apply to politicians). The ad has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on the site while Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, celebrates an influx of donations.
Facebook did take down an earlier version of that ad — not because it was peddling a flagrant lie but because it contained a transcription of Biden saying the phrase “son of a bitch,” which violates Facebook’s ad policy against profanity. (The new version of the ad censors the text to say “b*tch.”)
Facebook’s rising dominance as a news source also lends legitimacy to the ads it hosts, even though advertisers have been relieved of any obligation to accuracy. Sixty-seven percent of its users are exposed to news on the platform, and 43% use it to seek news out, according to a Pew Research Center study published last year.
The company’s policy to accept politicians’ money for ads promoting fake news is especially beneficial for Trump: He’s a master at spreading lies to benefit himself politically, and his presidency has demonstrated just how vulnerable American democracy is to disinformation on Facebook. The platform provides an ideal environment for incendiary, clickbait falsehoods by rewarding them with unwavering impunity.
By paying Facebook millions of dollars to run an onslaught of anti-impeachment ads — including ones promoting blatant lies — Trump’s campaign “has been able to really adeptly take advantage of [the impeachment news] for fundraising purposes,” said Tharp. “This election is going to be one in the margins, and whoever can really engage their base is going to have the advantage.”