Facebook is considering imposing a ban on political ads on its social network in the days leading up to the US Presidental election in November, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking. The potential ban is still only being discussed and has yet been finalized, said the people, who asked not to be named talking about internal policies. A halt on ads could defend against misleading election-related content spreading as people prepare to vote. Still, there are concerns that an ad blackout may hurt “get out the vote” campaigns, or limit a candidate’s ability to respond widely to breaking news or new information. Such an action would amount to a major change for Facebook, which has so far stuck to a policy of not fact-checking ads from politicians or their campaigns. That has prompted criticism from lawmakers and advocates, who say the policy means ads on the platform can be used to spread lies and misinformation. Civil rights groups also argue the company does not do enough to remove efforts to limit voter participation, and a recent audit found Facebook failed to enforce its own voter-suppression policies when it comes to posts from President Donald Trump.
Ad blackouts before elections are common in other parts of the world, including the UK, where Facebook’s global head of policy, Nick Clegg, was once deputy prime minister. Facebook is an important platform for politicians, especially at a time when many people are stuck at home and campaign rallies pose potential health risks due to the coronavirus. In 2016, President Donald Trump used Facebook ads and the company’s targeting capabilities to reach millions of voters with tailored messaging, a strategy that some believe helped win him the election. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former top security executive, said that any political ad ban could benefit Trump. “Eliminating online political ads only benefits those with money, incumbency or the ability to get media coverage,” he tweeted. “Who does that sound like?”
Political advertising has been a complicated issue for online platforms, and many of them have taken different approaches. Twitter has banned most political ads, but still sells some “cause-based” ads that touch on economic, environmental, or social issues. Google’s YouTube has already sold ad space on its homepage to the Trump campaign for the days leading up to November’s election, a deal that ensures Trump will be highly visible on the video service when people start to vote. In 2016, Russian operatives used Facebook to spread misleading and divisive ads and posts. The company has made a series of changes since then to tighten up its political ad process, including the implementation of stricter requirements for buying marketing spots and the addition of a searchable ad archive.