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Facebook Feels Pressure On Political Ad Policy


The pressure on Facebook to change the way it handles political ads includes some pressure from Facebook employees. They're joining lawmakers and civil rights groups who want the social network to revise its policy of letting politicians say almost anything in ads, even things that are not true. We should note that Facebook is among NPR's recent financial supporters. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: What can you say in a Facebook ad? That depends on what you're talking about and who you are.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: Our policy is that we do not fact-check politicians' speech, and the reason for that is that we believe that in a democracy, it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.

BOND: That's Mark Zuckerberg at a congressional hearing last week. Facebook doesn't want to censor political speech, but he's now finding out how complicated that decision can be. The policy is under attack by critics who say the company gives politicians free rein to lie and makes it easy to spread those lies. And some of those critics work at Facebook. Workers posted an open letter to the company's internal message board. They say the policy lets politicians weaponize the platform. They want Facebook to hold political ads to the same standards as other ads, including being fact-checked. The letter got 250 signatures - not a huge amount in a company with almost 40,000 employees but...

JEFF BERMAN: The employees at Facebook are notoriously quiet in challenging their leadership. And so for hundreds of them to come forward together is a big deal on its own.

BOND: That's Jeff Berman, a tech executive who used to run policy and advertising for MySpace. Scrutiny of Facebook's influence on politics has been heating up with the 2020 election around the corner. And while workers are debating inside Facebook, there is also pressure from the outside.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal?

BOND: Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York tried to pin down Zuckerberg at the hearing about whether she could run an ad with false information. Just days later, a political action committee followed through to make a point. It made an ad that appeared to show Republican Senator Lindsey Graham endorsing the Green New Deal.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: From a Republican point of view, I think we need to look at the science, admit that climate change is real. Simply put - we believe in the Green New Deal.

BOND: Graham never said that. The ad just edited videos to make it seem like he did. But here's the twist - Facebook took that ad down because it came from a political group, not a politician. But the challenges keep coming. The activists who made the Green New Deal ad registered as a candidate for California governor. Adriel Hampton says he did it to qualify as a politician in Facebook's eyes and to be allowed to run fake ads.

ADRIEL HAMPTON: I spent $19 and, you know, half of a video editor's day and, you know, obviously, not a lot of PR but a very low level of effort to get this big of a reaction.

BOND: But Facebook now says that because his candidacy is an attempt to get around its policies, his ads will be fact-checked. Critics say the problem is not just that Facebook lets politicians lie. It's about how those lies spread thanks to the way Facebook ads can be targeted to small groups. Here's Berman, the tech executive.

BERMAN: The ability to microtarget to pick exactly the people with the right backgrounds, the right interests, where they live, who they engage with, et cetera, you now go from phishing with a dragnet to phishing with a spear.

BOND: That means politicians can create specific versions of ads to target the people most susceptible to their messages, even if they're not true. Facebook says it's not changing its approach. It's resisted pressure from Washington so far. The question is whether it will resist its own employees. Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARLEY CARROLL'S "STARLINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.