But the problem isn’t unique to Facebook: The entire media industry — from other social media platforms to cable networks — is grappling with how to treat politicians’ ads that contain unproven allegations or false or misleading information.
“There’s been a lot of time and money spent on fighting Facebook in D.C., but that doesn’t mean that Facebook is the only platform we should be looking at here,” said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press, a press freedom advocacy organization.
Companies are now writing their own policies on political advertising, since many of the federal rules are decades old -- and the drafters likely did not anticipate the ubiquity of 24-hour cable news networks and social media.
Unlike traditional broadcasters who have to adhere to strict federal rules governing political advertisements, social media companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are still a Wild West. And in such a contentious political environment, companies that remove ads risk being seen unfairly biased against a candidate. But companies are also under pressure not to amplify misinformation following their stumbles during the 2016 presidential election.
The challenges were on full display this week. Facebook declined the Biden camp's request to remove a Trump campaign ad that accused the former vice president of offering Ukraine $1 billion in aid, if the country pushed out the official investigating a company with ties to his son. Facebook said the ad didn't violate its policies on political advertising. (We recently covered those policies in The Technology 202). Warren criticized the company in a tweet for allowing Trump to run ads with false information on the platform, "including ones that air the same lies that TV stations won’t."
Broadcasters such as NBC, ABC and CBS have to comply with the Federal Communications Commission’s rules around political ads, which bar them from censoring candidates. Stations have largely interpreted this to mean if they must run ads from candidates, while they can fact-check and prohibit ads from Super PACs and other third-party groups.
Cable networks like CNN do not have to comply with these rules. And for its part, CNN refused to air the ad with misleading claims about Biden (which also called the network's own anchors "media lapdogs") because it did not meet its advertising standards. But many other media companies still allowed the ad. As NBC’s Dylan Byers noted, Fox News, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, Google and Twitter have not banned the ads.
Facebook's decision about the Biden ad is under increased scrutiny after the company wrote a blog post in recent weeks where it committed to take a hands-off approach to politicians' content. The company said it would not submit ads from political candidates to third-party fact-checkers, prompting questions about whether the company was serious about combating misinformation ahead of the election.
Facebook doesn't necessarily need to adjust its own ad rules to stay in line with the strict rules on the books for broadcasters, Wood said. "Facebook can and should have a different policy," Wood said. Yet he argues the media ecosystem needs to do more: Free Press recently released a statement criticizing Facebook's political ad policy, and the organization has called for TV stations to also step up their fact-checking. "These laws come from an era when you had broadcast stations and newspapers."
Some have cast skepticism on Facebook's argument that its policies are intended to promote free speech. Facebook rakes in millions in advertising revenue every year from political ads, and some have wondered if the company's motivations for the policy are financial. Yael Eisenstat said she proposed scanning political ads for misinformation while working on election integrity at Facebook:
But others said that elected representatives should be regulating political advertising -- not Facebook. From Bloomberg's Shira Ovide:
As Ovide noted, Facebook in the past has decided not to run ads from political candidates when they violate their advertising standards.
Facebook pulled a Trump ad last year that was widely criticized as racist, and depicted misleading claims about a caravan of people seeking asylum at the border. CNN refused to run the ad, and Fox News and NBC also pulled it. While Facebook will not be fact-checking ads from politicians, ads run on that platform must still meet the company's Community Standards.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wants the U.S. government to investigate the national security implications of popular social media app TikTok, my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report. The request follows increased alarm that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, and other major Chinese companies may be using their market power to censor criticism of Beijing in the U.S.
“The Chinese government’s nefarious efforts to censor information inside free societies around the world cannot be accepted and pose serious long-term challenges to the U.S. and our allies,” Rubio wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin yesterday. Rubio is requesting a review of ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, a U.S. company it acquired in 2017.
A lack of content around protests in Hong Kong on TikTok in the U.S. has raised suspicions that the company may be employing Beijing-mandated censorship on the app outside of China, Tony and Drew reported last month. As recently as May, TikTok's global content-moderation guidelines banned criticism of the Chinese government, according to a report from The Guardian. TikTok says the guidelines are no longer in use and that local teams to shape content moderation guidelines, but has declined offer what those are in the U.S.
A spokesperson for TikTok did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.The Treasury Department also did not respond to a request for comment.
NIBBLES: A group of GitHub employees are calling on the code-sharing company to immediately cancel its recently-renewed contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, my colleague Nitasha Tiku writes. They said the company's promise to donate $500,000 to immigration nonprofits can't mitigate the damage ICE is doing to individuals and families.
“We cannot offset human lives with money,” employee activists wrote in an open letter to chief executive Nat Friedman on Wednesday. “There is no donation that can offset the harm that ICE is perpetrating with the help of our labor.” More than 150 employees, including a company vice president, have signed the letter so far.
GitHub and Microsoft, which owns GitHub, did not immediately respond to questions. Friedman defended the company's decision to renew the contract, which began in 2016, in a memo on Tuesday pointing out that the company made less than $200,000 from the deal.
The employee complaints illustrate the latest flash point in growing tensions between tech workers and their employers over partnering with the branch of the government responsible for enforcing President Trump's immigration policies. Amazon, Palantir, Salesforce and Microsoft have all come under fire in recent years for their work with ICE and Customs and Border Protection. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently gave a speech reaffirming the company's commitment to providing technology to the U.S. government, though he steered clear of mentioning its work with ICE.
BYTES: A shooter live-streamed an attack that left two people dead outside of a Halle, Germany, synagogue on Amazon's Twitch service Wednesday, CNBC's Todd Haselton and Megan Graham report. The video was viewed by about 2,200 people and taken down 30 minutes after being flagged, the company told CNBC. CNBC was able to identify other versions of the video on additional sites, including 4Chan, and NBC News reports the video has proliferated on white supremacist channels on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
“We are shocked and saddened by the tragedy that took place in Germany today, and our deepest condolences go out to all those affected,” a Twitch spokesperson said in a statement. “Twitch has a zero-tolerance policy against hateful conduct, and any act of violence is taken extremely seriously.” Twitch said it removed the video from its platform and shared the video’s digital fingerprint with other platforms to help prevent the spread of the video.
The tragic incident highlights an ongoing struggle by tech companies to prevent their platforms from being used to spread violent content. The problem has become a subject of U.S. and international lawmaker scrutiny after a shooter streamed on Facebook an attack on a New Zealand mosque that left 51 people dead in March. The video quickly spread to other platforms, a problem likely to arise with Wednesday's video.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
— News from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- President Trump appointed former homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to be a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council.
- The Aspen Tech Institute will host a Demo Day for its Tech Policy Hub from 4-7p.m., featuring a keynote by former U.S. CTO Megan Smith.
— Coming up:
- The House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittees will hold a joint hearing titled “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumer" on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
- Mark Zuckerberg will testify in front of the House Financial Services Committee on Oct. 23 in a hearing called “An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors.”
Part bipedal robot, part aerial drone, a new robot from CalTech researchers could one day explore Mars, my colleague Peter Holley reports.