Democrats are starting to freak out over Facebook’s policy that allows political ads with lies

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic lawmakers grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on his company's newly-confirmed policy of not fact-checking, suppressing, or removing political ads that promote falsehoods.

Aside from content that calls "for violence or could risk imminent physical harm or voter or census suppression," Facebook is allowing politicians to say anything they want in their ads.

Zuckerberg provided little clarity when Ocasio-Cortez asked him during Wednesday's hearing to shed light on where the social media giant is drawing the line when it comes to voter suppression. Instead, he stuck to Facebook's argument that rejecting politicians' misinformation would infringe on their First Amendment rights.

"Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?" Ocasio-Cortez asked during Wednesday's Financial Services Committee hearing.

"This is a democracy," Zuckerberg replied. "I believe people should be able to see for themselves what politicians they may or may not have voted for are saying and judge their character for themselves."

Facebook says it's had the policy in place since before the November 2018 midterm elections, but it only became public this month.

Republicans — many of whom have accused social media companies of censoring their speech — have praised Facebook's ad policy. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, called the policy "a heartwarming reminder that free expression is the best business model in the world."

Wednesday's hearing may be evidence that Democrats are starting to shift their approach to Facebook, which has come under increasing fire from Washington since 2016.

"Yesterday's hearing was the first sign that Democrats are starting to get it," Judd Legum, the co-founder of the now-shuttered progressive news site ThinkProgress who regularly covers Facebook, told Insider. "Prior to that, it has really been the conservatives and the Republicans who've been saying [Facebook is] biased against us and the Democrats were almost defending [Facebook] in some way, saying they're not biased against you."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez questions Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.


But Legum added that he doesn't think Democratic leadership is necessarily on the same page as many of their enraged members.

"I do think, candidly, there's a lot of energy in the rank-and-file but I don't know if the Democratic leadership in Congress is really focused in on this yet," Legum said.

Democratic strategists are increasingly concerned about the impact Facebook's policy will have on the 2020 election cycle.

"As we have seen again, and again, and again with Donald Trump, the right rules don't always win," Emily Williams, the vice president for digital communications at the Democratic consulting firm Global Strategy Group, told Insider. "That's what keeps me up at night: do we have to get on his level to beat him? That's a really scary proposition."

Williams thinks the best way for Democrats to combat disinformation in GOP political ads is by investing even more in advertising online — a win for Facebook's bottom line.

"I think it's incumbent on Democrats writ large to stay in the game," she said.

Both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden have attacked Facebook's policy in recent weeks. Warren ran an ad that falsely stated that Zuckerberg had endorsed Trump in order to make her point about how damaging the policy could be.

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and one of Zuckerberg's Harvard roommates, has been sharply critical of the fact-checking policy.

"By deciding to allow outright lies in political ads to travel on Facebook, is embracing the philosophy behind Trumpism and thereby tipping the scales," Hughes tweeted earlier this month. "There is a higher calling — to be a platform that won't allow political lies to spread. Employees should demand that kind of policy. It isn't partisan — it's the right thing to do."

But Facebook has shown no signs it will change its policy, even after strong pushback to an ad the Trump campaign ran with false information about Biden's involvement in Ukraine.

"Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is," Katie Harbath, the public policy director for Global Elections at Facebook, told the Biden campaign. "Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact-checkers."

Harbath is a former GOP digital strategist who worked on Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign.

Voter suppression

Voting rights advocates and Democrats say allowing politicians to traffic in lies and misinformation should violate Facebook's stated prohibition on content intended to suppress the vote. They argue that misinforming voters about any given candidate or race could dissuade those targeted from going to the polls.

"One way to discourage people from voting is to spread disinformation," Legum said. "It isn't clear what [Facebook] might do if there was a political ad that contained misinformation for the purpose of discouraging voting."

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told BuzzFeed News that Zuckerberg and Facebook "do not seem to understand what voter suppression looks like in 2019."

While Williams wouldn't classify all misinformation as voter suppression, she said Facebook's refusal to develop a coherent policy is harmful to everyone involved. She argued that a third party, rather than any individual tech company, should be responsible for development and implement industry-wide regulations on digital advertising.

"Misinformation is voter manipulation," Williams told Insider. "It's all gray, that's what were struggling with. I think where Facebook is continuing to keep themselves in hot water is saying that we want to operate in that gray area."