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Facebook to suspend political ads in US after polls close Nov. 3, broadening earlier restrictions

By ELIZABETH DWOSKIN | The Washington Post | Published: October 7, 2020

Facebook said it plans to temporarily suspend all political and issue-based advertising after polls close Nov. 3, a move the company said was intended to limit confusion, misinformation and abuse of its services in the days after the presidential election.

The social media giant also said it would remove calls for people to watch the polls when those posts use militaristic or intimidating language. Executives said that the policy applies to anyone, including President Donald Trump and other politicians. Trump has made calls for people to engage in poll-watching, including at the presidential debate, and his son Donald Trump Jr. appeared in an ad last month urging people to "defend your ballot" and join an "army" to protect the polls.

Facebook executives said such language, including the words "army" and "battle" would be prohibited in the future, but the ad will not be removed retroactively.

The moves by Facebook come in the face of criticism that the company has allowed misinformation and intimidating speech by politicians to run rampant, and that its policy to not fact-check political ads has created a loophole for misinformation that has been repeatedly exploited. The company has previously said it will suspend running new political ads in the week before the election but will allow ads that have previously been approved to continue running.

In a media call, Facebook executives gave a broad overview of the company's efforts to combat misinformation and Russian meddling since the 2016 election, when Russian operatives used its platform to sow disinformation to tens of millions of voters. Since then, Facebook has marshaled significant resources, including designating 35,000 full-time workers and content moderators to police violations of its speech policies.

But Facebook has been late to enforcement, cautious, and slow to change its policies to adapt to a shifting political reality in which its rules are often purposefully flouted. It delayed taking down a page calling for violence during anti-police brutality demonstrations in Kenosha, Wis., and did not take action on numerous posts by President Trump that civil rights activists and employees have said they think broke Facebook's rules. On Monday, Facebook took down a post by President Trump in which he said the coronavirus was less lethal than the flu, the second time the company has removed one of his posts due to covid-19 misinformation.

Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election. The company has planned for at least 70 scenarios if Trump or other politician uses their megaphones to dispute the results of the election, Facebook's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in an interview.

To combat that possibility, the company has said it will send out notifications on election night on Facebook and Instagram to share the latest results, in partnership with Reuters. If a presidential candidate or party declares premature victory, the company will apply labels to posts saying that the counting is still continuing or will label the post with the name of the winner.

"We believe we've done more than any other company" to combat misinformation and foreign interference since 2016, Guy Rosen, Facebook's vice president for integrity, said on a media call. "We thought it was appropriate to introduce these new measures as we head into the final stretch."

Twitter has also conducted extensive preparations for the 2020 election. The company has conducted almost a dozen scenarios of both foreign and domestic disinformation for election night and the week after the election. That planning includes scenarios where people try to dissuade others from voting by saying there are long lines at the polls, and a scenario in which a foreign power hacks documents and leaks them on social media, along the lines of the hacking of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's emails in 2016, according to interviews with executives. The company has banned all political ads and has removed or added warning labels to numerous tweets that break its rules combating voter suppression and election interference.

Facebook said it has removed more than 120,000 posts on Facebook and Instagram between March and September in the United States for violating the company's voter interference policies and has placed labels on 150 million pieces of content that have been debunked by the company's third-party fact-checkers.

The company's policies prohibit representations about voting such as "I hear anybody with a driver's license will get a ballot," executives said.

Some civil rights advocates praised Facebook's move.

"Given the unprecedented attacks on legitimate voting methods that are designed to delegitimize the election, these are important steps for Facebook to take to combat disinformation and the premature calling of the results, said Vanita Gupta, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in an interview.

Facebook said it was catching Russian disinformation operations earlier than in the past, "sometimes a year in advance," said Gleicher on the call. He referenced several Russian-backed disinformation operations that had been taken down in the previous month, including a fake page called PeaceData that targeted over 200 U.S. journalists.

Gleicher said the company was also preparing for a "hack-and-leak" scenario along the lines of Russian-backed WikiLeaks dump of the emails of Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta in 2016. He said they had not seen this activity, but "we should all be ready in case they or others try again."

He added that the company would remove leaked material and coverage of such leaks by state media entities.