Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday said the social network would stop accepting new political ads in the week before the US presidential election in November amid concerns that its loose rules could once again be exploited to interfere with the vote like in 2016. The announcement comes amid heightened scrutiny of Facebook’s influence on politics including in countries like India where the social media giant has been accused of ignoring hate speech by BJP leaders to placate the ruling party.
In a Facebook post announcing the changes, Mr Zuckerberg, chief executive of the world’s biggest social network, wrote that he was concerned about the unique challenges voters would face due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted a surge in voting by mail.
“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,” he said.
Mr Zuckerberg has previously defended his decision to allow for a freewheeling political conversation on Facebook, including through paid ads, which the company exempts from its fact-checking program with external partners.
He said in his post he continued to believe that the “best antidote to bad speech is more speech,” but acknowledged that in the final days of an election, “there may not be enough time to contest new claims”.
Facebook will continue to allow campaigns and others to run political ads that are already in the system, and will permit them to change spending amounts and user targeting, but will block adjustments to the ads’ content or design.
The company also said it was creating a label for posts by candidates or campaigns that try to claim victory before the election results are official, and widening the criteria for content to be removed as voter suppression.
Facebook has been battered by criticism, including from its own employees, since allowing several inflammatory posts by President Donald Trump to remain untouched earlier this summer, including one which contained misleading claims about mail-in ballots.
The company has also faced searing criticism for allegedly favouring ruling parties, such as the BJP in India, with moves like ignoring incendiary content to protect its business interests, following reports by the Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.
Disinformation experts have also raised the alarm, echoed in threat assessments by Facebook executives, about false claims and conspiracy theories spreading in the increasingly likely scenario that official results are not immediately available on election night.
Mr Zuckerberg said Facebook was “increasingly seeing attempts to undermine the legitimacy of our elections from within our own borders” in addition to foreign influence campaigns, like the one it and US intelligence agencies determined Russia carried out to meddle in the 2016 vote.
To address those threats, Facebook will label any posts seeking to delegitimize the outcome of the election, he wrote. The company also will remove posts with misinformation about COVID-19 and voting, which Mr Zuckerberg said could be used to scare people away from exercising their right to vote.
He said the company would not plan to make any further changes to its election policies beyond those listed in his post before the official declaration of the result.
(With inputs from Reuters)