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Facebook will ban new political ads week before the election; Zuckerberg warns of possible 'civil unrest'

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'We've already strengthened our enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks like QAnon, and other groups that could be used to organize violence or civil unrest in the period after the elections'

George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook will ban new political ads for the week leading up to Election Day, Nov. 3, in an effort to "help secure the integrity of the U.S. elections by encouraging voting, connecting people to authoritative information, and reducing the risks of post-election confusion."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the announcement Thursday, outlining the steps the social media platform is taking to combat voting misinformation and meddling. Zuckerberg started his communication by saying that "our nation is so divided" and that the election results could potentially take weeks to be finalized, which could open the door for "increased risk of civil unrest across the country."

"We're going to block new political and issue ads during the final week of the campaign," Zuckerberg stated. "It's important that campaigns can run get out the vote campaigns, and I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims."

Zuckerberg noted that campaigns can still run political ads that were promoted before the week preceding the election, but no new advertisements will be permitted on the social network.

Facebook will remove anything it considers misinformation about voting and will consult with state election officials to verify voting claims.

Facebook promises to remove any messages attempting to suppress or discourage voting, such as incorrectly informing people that "you can send in your mail ballot up to 3 days after election day." Facebook will delete any posts that try to scare people by asserting that voters will contract COVID-19 if they vote in person.

Zuckerberg said the platform would limit how many messages Facebook users can forward on Messenger, to prevent misinformation or harmful content from going viral.

Because of the anticipated increased use of mail-in ballots, Facebook warned that the final results might not be available on election night.

"We'll use the Voting Information Center to prepare people for the possibility that it may take a while to get official results," the press release read. "This information will help people understand that there is nothing illegitimate about not having a result on election night."

The Facebook founder warned that candidates could claim election victory before the official results are made public. Zuckerberg cautioned that the time frame of waiting for the election results "could be a very heated period."

"If any candidate or campaign tries to declare victory before the results are in, we'll add a label to their post educating that official results are not yet in and directing people to the official results," Zuckerberg wrote.

Facebook said it would "attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud."

Zuckerberg touted that Facebook "took down a network of 13 accounts and 2 pages that were trying to mislead Americans and amplify division." The network was linked to "individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA)" that focused primarily on the U.S., U.K., Algeria, and Egypt, in addition to other English-speaking countries and countries in the Middle East and North Africa."

"We've already strengthened our enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks like QAnon, and other groups that could be used to organize violence or civil unrest in the period after the elections," the news release stated. "We have already removed thousands of these groups and removed even more from being included in our recommendations and search results. We will continue to ramp up enforcement against these groups over the coming weeks."

Facebook will also promote video tutorials on how to vote by mail and information on deadlines for registering and voting. Facebook proclaimed that it has a "goal of helping 4 million people to register and then vote" and has directed "almost 24 million clicks to voter registration websites" in three days.

"I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election – even if it takes time for every vote to be counted. We've voted during global pandemics before," Zuckerberg concluded. "We can do this. But it's going to take a concerted effort by all of us – political parties and candidates, election authorities, the media and social networks, and ultimately voters as well – to live up to our responsibilities. We all have a part to play in making sure that the democratic process works, and that every voter can make their voice heard where it matters most – at the ballot box."

The Trump campaign released a statement Thursday, commenting on Facebook's decision to ban political ads in the final week before the presidential election.

"In the last seven days of the most important election in our history, President Trump will be banned from defending himself on the largest platform in America," Samantha Zager, the campaign's deputy national press secretary, said. "When millions of voters will be making their decisions, the President will be silenced by the Silicon Valley Mafia, who will at the same time allow corporate media to run their biased ads to swing voters in key states."

Facebook has removed political ads by President Donald Trump as recently as June. One Trump campaign ad was removed for "violating our policy against organized hate."

Facebook pulled a pro-Trump ad in March, arguing that the ad didn't meet the platform's advertisement standards and could cause confusion about the U.S. Census. President Trump has nearly 31 million followers on his main Facebook page.

Facebook has received scrutiny from the media, politicians, and its own employees for not fact-checking political ads that run on its social media platform.

In June, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called for Facebook to "proactively stem the tide of false information" by fact-checking political ads during the two weeks before Election Day. Biden's official Facebook page has 2.8 million followers.

Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives have defended their decision to not fact-check political ads by saying that they don't believe the network should be the "arbiter of truth."

"Fact-checking partners do not rate content that does not include a verifiable claim, or content that was true at the time of writing. In addition, opinion and speech from politicians is not eligible to be fact-checked," Facebook's policy says.

"Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is," the statement states. "Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words."

"We rely on third-party fact-checkers to help reduce the spread of false news and other types of viral misinformation, like memes or manipulated photos and videos," a Facebook press release from 2019 stated. "We don't believe, however, that it's an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician's speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny."

"That's why Facebook exempts politicians from our third-party fact-checking program," the statement said.

Last October, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his social media platform would no longer allow political ads.

"We've made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally," Dorsey tweeted. "We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought."

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