Mark Zuckerberg has been roundly criticised by the press and lawmakers for his company’s incongruous new policy allowing politicians to make false claims in advertising on the platform. Adding to that growing wave of dissent, according to the New York Times: some of Facebook’s own employees, who call the move “a threat to what [Facebook] stands for.”
In September the company announced an extension of its so-called newsworthiness exemption – a carve-out that allows posts that would otherwise be against site rules to remain “if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm.” That broad new exemption was “to treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard.”
During his six-hour testimony before the US House Financial Services Committee last week, Zuckerberg had few answers for legitimate hypothetical and not-so-hypothetical questions about how the platform would treat political speech and political advertising. Further confounding the many critics of the policy, Facebook has admitted political advertising is essentially insignificant where advertorial profits for the company are concerned.
In the weeks since the policy change was rolled out, dissent has reportedly grown on the internal Facebook Workplace instance used by employees of the social network. According to the Times, a letter from the employees to Zuckerberg in opposition to the political ad policy currently has more than 250 signatories.
While that’s orders of magnitude smaller than the company’s aggregate workforce of 35,000, vocal dissent is relatively young at Facebook compared to other Silicon Valley giants like Google, where employee activism has had a bit more time to grow. “We’re worried we’re on track to undo the great strides our product teams have made in integrity over the last two years,” the letter claims. “It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”
In short, these employees who are potentially risking increased scrutiny or retaliation from their bosses for speaking out, are calling for political speech to be treated identically to any other speech and to restrict political ad targeting. Read the letter in full below:
We are proud to work here.
Facebook stands for people expressing their voice. Creating a place where we can debate, share different opinions, and express our views is what makes our app and technologies meaningful for people all over the world.
We are proud to work for a place that enables that expression, and we believe it is imperative to evolve as societies change. As Chris Cox said, “We know the effects of social media are not neutral, and its history has not yet been written.”
This is our company.
We’re reaching out to you, the leaders of this company, because we’re worried we’re on track to undo the great strides our product teams have made in integrity over the last two years. We work here because we care, because we know that even our smallest choices impact communities at an astounding scale. We want to raise our concerns before it’s too late.
Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing.
Misinformation affects us all. Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.
Allowing paid civic misinformation to run on the platform in its current state has the potential to:
— Increase distrust in our platform by allowing similar paid and organic content to sit side-by-side – some with third-party fact-checking and some without. Additionally, it communicates that we are OK profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in or seeking positions of power.
— Undo integrity product work. Currently, integrity teams are working hard to give users more context on the content they see, demote violating content, and more. For the Election 2020 Lockdown, these teams made hard choices on what to support and what not to support, and this policy will undo much of that work by undermining trust in the platform. And after the 2020 Lockdown, this policy has the potential to continue to cause harm in coming elections around the world.
Proposals for improvement
Our goal is to bring awareness to our leadership that a large part of the employee body does not agree with this policy. We want to work with our leadership to develop better solutions that both protect our business and the people who use our products. We know this work is nuanced, but there are many things we can do short of eliminating political ads altogether.
These suggestions are all focused on ad-related content, not organic.
1. Hold political ads to the same standard as other ads.
a. Misinformation shared by political advertisers has an outsized detrimental impact on our community. We should not accept money for political ads without applying the standards that our other ads have to follow.
2. Stronger visual design treatment for political ads.
a. People have trouble distinguishing political ads from organic posts. We should apply a stronger design treatment to political ads that makes it easier for people to establish context.
3. Restrict targeting for political ads.
a. Currently, politicians and political campaigns can use our advanced targeting tools, such as Custom Audiences. It is common for political advertisers to upload voter rolls (which are publicly available in order to reach voters) and then use behavioural tracking tools (such as the FB pixel) and ad engagement to refine ads further. The risk with allowing this is that it’s hard for people in the electorate to participate in the “public scrutiny” that we’re saying comes along with political speech. These ads are often so micro-targeted that the conversations on our platforms are much more siloed than on other platforms. Currently we restrict targeting for housing and education and credit verticals due to a history of discrimination. We should extend similar restrictions to political advertising.
4. Broader observance of the election silence periods
a. Observe election silence in compliance with local laws and regulations. Explore a self-imposed election silence for all elections around the world to act in good faith and as good citizens.
5. Spend caps for individual politicians, regardless of source
a. FB has stated that one of the benefits of running political ads is to help more voices get heard. However, high-profile politicians can out-spend new voices and drown out the competition. To solve for this, if you have a PAC and a politician both running ads, there would be a limit that would apply to both together, rather than to each advertiser individually.
6. Clearer policies for political ads
a. If FB does not change the policies for political ads, we need to update the way they are displayed. For consumers and advertisers, it’s not immediately clear that political ads are exempt from the fact-checking that other ads go through. It should be easily understood by anyone that our advertising policies about misinformation don’t apply to original political content or ads, especially since political misinformation is more destructive than other types of misinformation.
Therefore, the section of the policies should be moved from “prohibited content” (which is not allowed at all) to “restricted content” (which is allowed with restrictions).
We want to have this conversation in an open dialog because we want to see actual change.
We are proud of the work that the integrity teams have done, and we don’t want to see that undermined by policy. Over the coming months, we’ll continue this conversation, and we look forward to working towards solutions together.
This is still our company.
Featured image: Drew Angerer (Getty)