Facebook on Thursday defied public calls to adopt significant limits on political advertising ahead of the 2020 presidential election, opting instead to introduce changes that allow users to control more of the ads they see.
The company’s new rules will continue to allow politicians to make false claims in their paid political posts and preserve the powerful yet controversial targeting tools that long have helped Democrats and Republicans deliver messaging to narrowly segmented audiences on the social networking site.
Pressure to rethink its approach to political ads came from a wide array of digital experts and privacy advocates, as well as some of Facebook’s own employees. They argued that the company’s policies coarsened the American electorate and exposed users to serious risks, including viral disinformation, which malicious actors could pay to promote on the site.
Instead, Facebook said it would address those concerns by giving users a choice to see fewer ads about political candidates and social issues, a policy it plans to roll out in the summer. Users can also choose to stop seeing ads from campaigns and other entities, including businesses, that target them using custom lists of data, such as their email addresses.
In a blog post announcing the changes, Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management for ads, wrote that the company is “not deaf” to criticism about its rules around political ads. But he maintained that the changes would “increase the level of transparency it provides for people and [give] them more control over the ads they see.”
Leathern added that Facebook continues to think the government, not private companies, should set the boundaries of what advertisers can do in an election.
With its affirmation that it will not curtail targeting, Facebook has set itself apart from its Silicon Valley peers, Google and Twitter, each of which introduced major changes last year in response to a prolonged outcry over the capacity to tailor narrow messages to voters on social media. President Trump’s reelection campaign helped catalyze the changes, after his team ran false ads about 2020 Democratic hopeful Joe Biden. Facebook and Google refused to take down the ads about the former vice president, sparking a widespread outcry.
Twitter’s approach was bluntest, banning all advertisements about candidates, elections and political issues such as abortion and immigration last year. The ability to reach voters online should be “earned, not bought,” the company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, said in announcing the move, which drew sharp rebukes from the Trump camp.
Google opted to preserve political advertising, including certain targeting capabilities, but the company limited some of the most precise tools for reaching specific users, prompting bipartisan backlash from political outfits that have grown accustomed to such powerful technologies. In doing so, it also preserved its own policy against fact-checking political ads on services including YouTube.
Facebook said it sought to take a different approach: “While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads,” Leathern wrote.
Generally, Facebook’s advertising tools allow tailoring messages to lists of individual voters or to small groups based on characteristics such as age, education, Zip code, income, relationship status, interests or political leanings. Most powerfully, Facebook also allows the creation of “custom audiences” based on lists of individuals who, for example, donate to a cause or visit a web page that Facebook tracks. The result can be a torrent of different messages to different voters, with Trump’s campaign in 2016 using tens of thousands of different ads each day.
Going forward, Facebook said users will be able to limit organizations — many of which they may not know by name — that help businesses and political campaigns target them with ads using the custom audiences tool. Conversely, people can choose to opt into seeing ads that were not targeted to them, Facebook said, if users think they were wrongly excluded.
Responding to concerns about targeting, Leathern said that about 85 percent of spending “by US presidential candidates on Facebook is for ad campaigns targeted to audiences estimated to be greater than 250,000.”
Facebook also said it plans to overhaul its political ad archive, a hub where it displays the paid posts purchased by campaigns and businesses alike. Now, the company said it would display the total number of Facebook users that an advertiser had hoped to reach as part of a campaign.
Discussion of limiting political microtargeting began within Facebook in 2017, as the company was reeling from revelations about how Russian operatives used the platform to manipulate U.S. voters in the presidential election a year earlier. The idea did not immediately catch on, but interest surged last year as critics sought reforms at Facebook ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg remained steadfast in his view that his company should not serve as an “arbiter of truth,” vetting what politicians can say. Company executives also expressed concerns that an aggressive tightening of ad rules also threatened to disproportionately harm down-ballot candidates, who rely on paid media to find supporters. Still, Facebook had considered a wide menu of other reforms — including limiting the size of an audience that could be targeted with an ad and labeling paid political media to indicative it had not been fact-checked, The Post first reported.
Ultimately, Facebook opted against those significant changes, following what Leathern described as “extensive outreach and consultations.”
“We heard about the importance of these tools for reaching key audiences from a wide range of NGOs, non-profits, political groups, and campaigns,” Leathern said.
Facebook last fall was put on notice by the Trump campaign not to restrict advertising opportunities. Gary Coby, the campaign’s digital director, argued that reining in targeting would be “dangerous” and a “huge blow to speech.”
The warnings were echoed by Democrats, who said they relied on targeting tools to raise money and mobilize supporters — critical in matching Trump’s enormous audience on Twitter. Many in the party, however, did urge Facebook to fact-check political figures, fearing the online spread of falsehoods.
Facebook employees in October similarly had called on the company to adopt sweeping changes to the company’s ad rules, including limits on targeting and requirements for fact-checking. Researchers, meanwhile, warned about the dangers of ads focused on narrow communities of users.
“Microtargeting is what’s driving privacy abuses because it’s furthering the desire to grab as much information about people as possible from all possible sources,” said Aleksandra Korolova, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California. “It doesn’t serve the individual’s interest.”