President Trump has been lying relentlessly about vote-by-mail for weeks, in an obvious effort to dissuade localities from scaling up for more mail voting, because he believes more people voting this way makes his reelection less likely.
Unfortunately, even though Facebook is vowing a vigorous effort to clean up information about voting, it is unlikely to do much to prevent Trump from spreading his lies about vote-by-mail in particular.
The reason for this lies in the subtleties and nuances of the policy Facebook is adopting, and the ways Trump is going about this particular disinformation effort.
Facebook’s new policy promises to provide voters “authoritative information” on options for “voting during a pandemic.” It also vows to “quickly respond and remove false claims about polling conditions in the 72 hours leading into election day.”
And the new policy says Facebook will remove any content that may “deprive people of their right to vote” or “suppresses voting,” adding that “there are no exceptions for politicians.”
All of that could certainly make a positive difference. But it might not do much to prevent Trump from spreading rank disinformation about vote-by-mail, lies that are very much designed to suppress the vote.
So the question is whether a particular lie about voting constitutes voter suppression, as Facebook defines it, which would theoretically make it subject to removal even as other types of lies pass unchecked.
In response to the new policy, Joe Biden’s campaign wrote a letter asking Facebook to clarify whether Trump’s falsehoods about vote-by-mail constituted voter suppression and would be subject to removal.
The Biden campaign also asked whether falsehoods about vote-by-mail constitute misleading people “about polling conditions,” and why this should only be subject to removal in the 72 hours before election day, since people are signing up en masse for vote-by mail-right now. If so, this, too, might be subject to removal.
But as best as I can determine, neither of these types of disinformation is likely to get taken down.
In response to my inquiries, Facebook declined to speculate on whether it would act on future Trump posts on voting, noting that specific wording and context are crucial.
But Facebook did point me to its policies defining what constitutes “interference” with voting. Facebook defines this mostly as “misrepresentation” of various specifics, such as dates, locations and times for voting or voter registration; what qualifies you to vote; what information must be presented; who is running; and so forth.
That definition seems unlikely to apply to many of the types of lies that Trump tells about vote-by-mail.
Trump has recently claimed on Facebook that vote-by-mail will be rigged and produce a fraudulent outcome; that it will lead to millions of ballots printed by foreign countries; and that mail ballots will be stolen, forged, and illegally printed. Trump has repeated such claims again and again and again. Even some Republicans say they are nonsense.
As Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker report, the deeper dispute here, which pits civil rights groups along with the Biden campaign against Facebook, is over whether this kind of lying constitutes voter suppression. That isn’t an easy question and depends how you define it.
But one thing we do know is that Trump is telling these lies for a deliberate real-world purpose. That’s to make it less likely that people vote safely in a pandemic, to make it politically harder for local officials to facilitate this option for voters — which could force them to choose between exercising the franchise and protecting their health and lives — and, above all, to delegitimize the outcome in advance.
That, in turn, could lay the groundwork for Richard L. Hasen’s nightmare scenario: We don’t have a resolution on Election Day, with millions of mail ballots left to count, leading Trump to declare that any outcome in which he doesn’t prevail will be due to fraud and a stolen election, stoking civil unrest and possibly violence.
It seems clear that none of these lies would qualify as voter suppression or interference under current Facebook policies. The consequences of this — combined with the fact that politicians’ lies themselves pass undisturbed — appear likely to be that Trump will be able to lie this way on Facebook about voting for the next four months, pretty much with impunity, with untold real-world consequences.