The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facebook won’t take down an ad that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office says could lead to harassment and death threats

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Facebook has refused to remove a widely viewed attack ad that links Rep. Ilhan Omar to Hamas, even after her aides told the tech giant the message is inaccurate, hateful and threatened to subject her to death threats.

The controversy could further inflame tensions between Facebook and Democratic lawmakers, who say the social media company has failed to police its platform against known, viral falsehoods and refused to heed their cries about the real-world consequences of online speech.

The Minnesota Democrat’s office first reached out to Facebook on Tuesday after viewing ads from the pro-Israeli lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. In one of the ads, Omar’s face is superimposed onto Hamas rockets, with text that claims: “When Israel targets Hamas, Rep. Omar calls it an act of terrorism.”

The ad distorted Omar’s tweet from last week, in which she said that Israeli airstrikes killing civilians in Gaza, not Hamas specifically, were an act of terrorism.

Omar’s office warned the company that similar images of her face with Hamas attacks have directly inspired death threats against her. Her aides told Facebook in emails later viewed by The Washington Post that it “peddles both hate speech and misinformation.”

A day of back-and-forth followed, after Facebook initially could not find the ad — then spent hours reviewing it — only to determine it did not violate company policies.

The ad ran as part of a series targeting other lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), which Facebook’s ad tracking tool estimated could be seen by between 500,000 and 1 million people.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone confirmed the company determined the ads did not violate its policies. However, the social network does reject ads that its fact-checking partners determine are false, and the company told Omar’s office in an email exchange that this ad would be eligible for a fact check.

Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 to discuss the measures they took to control misinformation. (Video: Reuters)

The exchange follows long-running criticism that Facebook and other social networks are not doing enough to protect women of color from hateful and inciting content online, even at the highest levels of political office.

Omar’s office told the tech giant that “we are deeply concerned that Facebook would continue to profit off this hate,” in the email exchange.

This isn’t the first time a tech company has refused to remove content targeting Omar that raised concerns about hate and harassment. In 2019, Twitter refused to take any action against a tweet from President Donald Trump that called on Omar and several other Democratic members of Congress to “go back” to their countries. Twitter said the tweets didn’t violate its policies, but they prompted widespread allegations of racism against women of color. Independent researchers struggled to see why the tweets didn’t run afoul of the company’s rules.

Twitter says Trump’s tweet didn’t violate its rules against racism but won’t say why

Facebook’s refusal to remove the ad could further inflame tensions with Democratic lawmakers, who for years have criticized the company for being too hands-off over falsehoods and other harmful content circulating on the social network.

Party leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), have already criticized the ads. Pelosi said she didn’t agree with Omar’s position, but she told reporters it was disappointing to see a “deeply cynical” and “inflammatory” ad distorting Omar’s statements.

Pelosi has had her own showdowns with Facebook after the company refused to remove a distorted video that was edited to make her speech appear stilted and slurred. Pelosi criticized Facebook for not removing that clip. Her office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the company should remove the ad targeting Omar.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton slammed Facebook on May 30, 2019, for not taking down a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). (Video: Reuters)

In addition to calling Facebook to remove the ads, Omar’s office has also called on AIPAC to apologize. Isi Baehr-Breen, Omar’s deputy communications director, called the ads “anti-Muslim hate speech.”

“It’s dangerous, plain and simple,” she said in a statement.

AIPAC defended the ad as “fair and accurate” in a statement to The Post, and said it would continue to criticize lawmakers who seek to undermine support for Israel.

“The ad concerning Representative Omar is completely fair and accurate,” AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann said in a statement. “It is not a personal attack but highlights her outrageous characterization of Israel’s efforts at self-defense as ‘terrorism.’ Israel targets Hamas terrorists, not civilians.”

The ad exacerbates long-running tensions between Omar and the pro-Israel lobby. Omar faced widespread backlash in 2019 for a tweet suggesting Israel’s allies in American politics were motivated by money rather than principle. She apologized after Pelosi and Democratic leadership condemned her “use of anti-Semitic tropes and prejudicial accusations about Israel’s supporters.”

AIPAC last year apologized and removed Facebook ads that accused “radicals” in the Democratic Party of “pushing their anti-Semitic and anti-Israel policies.”