Under mounting pressure to quell the flood of partisan misinformation coursing through its platform, Facebook announced a new policy in September: It would stop accepting all new political ads during the week preceding the presidential election.
“This election is not going to be business as usual,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement at the time. “We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy.”
In theory, as Zuckerberg touted, the policy would prevent political advertisers from spreading new messages to targeted audiences before fact-checkers and journalists had time to scrutinize them — reducing the risk of false and misleading claims going viral in the run-up to the vote.
In practice, it has been a disaster.
The ban went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday. Chaos ensued almost immediately: Thousands of previously approved ads from Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign and multiple progressive groups were wrongly blocked due to a “technical flaw,” potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. President Donald Trump’s campaign managed to launch new ads post-ban. And in violation of its own rules, Facebook approved ads from the president’s campaign prematurely declaring victory, as well as hundreds of ads bearing the misleading text “ELECTION DAY IS TODAY” or “Vote Today.”
Days later, Facebook is still putting out fires amid searing accusations of partisan bias and negligence. The company’s stunning failure to properly enforce its own high-profile policy at such a critical time has raised alarm about its preparedness for the fallout of the election — the results of which could be inconclusive for days or even weeks.
From the start, the policy was transparently more of a PR stunt than an effective election integrity measure, Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the nonprofit Accountable Tech, told HuffPost after the ban began on Tuesday.
“[Facebook’s] implementation certainly has only inspired more fears over how they’re going to be able to handle these last-minute election-specific rollouts,” Lehrich said. “It constantly feels like they’re dealing with optics — they’re thinking of everything as optical problems and never as structural problems.”
Initially, Facebook’s political ads ban was set to end after Election Day. But just hours after the news outlet Fast Company pointed out one of the policy’s glaring flaws — a candidate could still falsely declare victory in an ad before the results are known — Facebook introduced a new rule prohibiting “political ads that claim victory before the results of the 2020 election have been declared,” and later extended the ban indefinitely.
The ban is only supposed to apply for new political ads; those approved before Tuesday are eligible to run as usual, per Facebook’s rules, including in the days leading up to Nov. 3. This aspect of the policy is problematic for several reasons.
In anticipation of the ban, Trump’s campaign and other political advertisers submitted thousands of ads for approval right before the deadline. These ads — which are catalogued in Facebook’s public library — can now be switched on- and offline whenever the advertisers please. (Of course, it is near-impossible for the public or fact-checkers to scrutinize such a vast quantity of last-minute ads before next week’s vote, which was supposedly the point of the ban in the first place. Not to mention Facebook specifically exempts political ads from its third-party fact-checking program.)
Trump’s ad arsenal now includes at least 18 apparent victory ads, in which a narrated video declares, “It’s morning in America. Donald J. Trump is still president of the United States,” over cries of despair, supposedly from liberals. Other ads bear the text, “CALIFORNIA VOTES TRUMP.”
The president’s team also preemptively launched ads on Monday claiming record-setting GDP growth — citing figures that hadn’t yet been released.
Meanwhile, Biden’s campaign was stuck in limbo, unable to run its pre-approved ads for days, reportedly without any explanation from Facebook.
“For more than a year, our campaign has engaged with Facebook in good faith to both better understand their shifting policies around elections and to push for equal and measurable enforcement of those rules. Once again, just five days before Election Day, they have failed to meet the moment,” Rob Flaherty, digital director of the Biden campaign, said in a statement on Thursday.
“Facebook has, to this point, provided no clarity on the widespread issues that are plaguing all of our ad campaigns since the onset of their new ad restrictions,” Flaherty continued. “It is currently unclear to us whether or not Facebook is giving Donald Trump an unfair electoral advantage in this particular instance, but it is abundantly clear that Facebook was wholly unprepared to handle this election despite having four years to prepare.”
This error and Facebook’s slow response to correct it cost Biden’s campaign an estimated $500,000 in donations, Flaherty said.
Facebook blamed the issue on “technical flaws” in a statement released Thursday night, adding that “no ad was paused or rejected by a person, or because of any partisan consideration.”
Facebook also blocked pre-approved ads from progressive groups including Priorities USA, DSPolitical and Defending Democracy Together.
“After two days of public and private complaints, Facebook has finally acknowledged that they were wrong in shutting off our ads, but their recalcitrance and failure to prepare cost us two of the final seven days of advertising,” Priorities USA said in an emailed statement to HuffPost.
“Throughout this process we were misled and strung along in an attempt to shift blame onto us and other organizations, but the facts tell a different story,” it continued. “The last two days demonstrate a refusal to act responsibly without public pressure.”