But it appears that thus far, Facebook is not willing to go as far as Google is in this regard.
The basic problem is that Trump is already signaling he will declare himself the victor on or just after Election Day, if he’s ahead in the count at that point, while seeking to declare millions of outstanding mail ballots to be illegitimate, even as Trump campaign and GOP lawyers try to invalidate as many as possible in the courts.
The role that the tech giants might play in spreading such disinformation is unpleasant to contemplate.
Facebook recently announced that it will ban political ads in the week up to Election Day, but it will allow political ads to resume on Nov. 4. Since then, according to Fast Company, Facebook has clarified that in the aftermath of the election, it will “be rejecting political ads that claim victory before the results of the 2020 election have been declared.”
But that’s problematic, because it still leaves open avenues for Trump to nonetheless use Facebook to spread disinformation as he seeks to lock himself in as the winner while delegitimizing millions of outstanding votes.
Karen Kornbluh, the director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative, points out that Facebook’s policy is beset with loopholes that Trump might exploit to advance his agenda of discrediting the outcome. It isn’t just the fact that political ads can still run. It’s also how the policy is drawn.
The prohibition is only on ads that “claim victory,” Kornbluh points out, noting that the Trump campaign could still run ads claiming there is rampant fraud in the millions of mail votes that are still being counted.
That might not constitute a direct declaration of victory, but it would still very much help accomplish Trump’s goal. Imagine his campaign pumping out millions of Facebook ads along those lines, even as the election teeters on a knife’s edge.
“It leaves way too much wiggle room,” Kornbluh told me. “Where the platforms get into trouble is where they lay out vague rules,” which leaves them making tough decisions about what is permitted and what isn’t “in real time, when they’re under pressure by powerful political or financial players.”
By contrast, Google appears to be banning political ads entirely in the immediate aftermath of the election, which would presumably make such things much harder. As Kornbluh said of Google’s new directive: “It’s important that the prohibition is so clear and broad."
Facebook has said that it will try to help protect our elections by attaching “an informational label to content” that claims that “lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud.” So presumably if and when Trump puts out all those ads claiming fraud, such labels will be affixed.
But you don’t have to look far to see how limited this is. Donald Trump Jr. recently posted a video on Facebook claiming that the election will inevitably be stolen from Trump through fraudulent mail voting, and mobilizing an “army” of Trump supporters to prepare.
Facebook affixed a label to this saying that vote-by-mail has a “long history of trustworthiness” and that “the same is predicted this year.” That video is still up. How much good is that label doing in the face of such disinformation?
Obviously Trump very well may not succeed in actually delegitimizing enough mail ballots to swing in his favor an election he’s losing. But he could still end up mobilizing that “army” of supporters, and who knows what will happen then. Facebook may end up playing a big role in that mobilization.
As Kornbluh put it: “All the platforms need to do more.” Much, much more.