A slew of policy changes this week at Facebook show how the social media giant can act decisively on pressing public policy matters — when it chooses to.
But as CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the announcements also highlight some things Facebook is choosing not to do, such as insist on truth in political advertising run on its platform, that have become a source of growing concern to politicians and elected officials.
On Monday, Facebook rolled out sweeping updates to its products and policies surrounding elections and disinformation and said it had caught dozens of fake Russian-controlled accounts seeking to influence the 2020 election.
Facebook said it will begin to monitor its platform for fraudulent logins and other malicious activity specifically targeting campaign workers. It will label content by government-controlled media outlets, and on Instagram it will soon label false or misleading content.
Those and other policy changes underscored Facebook’s capacity to crack down on issues it deems a major risk. But they also struck a contrast from other areas where Facebook’s policies continue to provoke critics.
In recent weeks, for example, Facebook has been embroiled in a feud with Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren over truthfulness in political ads. Facebook has said it will not subject ads by political candidates to third-party fact-checking and will not take down ads containing false statements, a stance that has prompted Warren to accuse Zuckerberg of running a “disinformation-for-profit” machine.
At a speech at Georgetown University last week, Zuckerberg responded that he doesn’t believe people “want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judge to be 100 percent true.” Facebook has also defended its approach by comparing itself to broadcast networks and stations, which are required by federal law to air those ads without a view to their accuracy. (Cable networks are not subject to the same law, and CNN has opted not to air the ad that provoked the controversy.)
Facebook’s decision to compare itself to broadcasters has opened the door to questions about whether — and how — rules designed for other media technologies may be applied to Facebook, and whether they should be.
The Federal Radio Act, a law passed by Congress in the 1920s, prohibits TV and radio stations from picking and choosing which political ads they wish to run. Facebook has said that its policies on politicians’ ads upholds the spirit of those rules. But broadcasters are also subject to various other regulations, such as requirements that they air a certain amount of children’s content — should the company abide by those too?
“The point is, they want the benefits of being a regulated broadcaster without the responsibility of being a regulated broadcaster,” said Andrew Schwartzman, senior counselor to the Benton Foundation, a civil society group, in a recent interview.
Zuckerberg is set to face additional heat from Congress on a range of issues including those when he goes before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. Its Democratic chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Waters, has slammed Facebook’s attempted expansion into digital currency, which she says should be halted. (Zuckerberg met privately with Waters last week ahead of his speech at Georgetown.)
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Rep. Sylvia Garcia — a member of the committee — said Zuckerberg should be ready to field probable questions from lawmakers about political advertising and election interference.
“When you’re here as a witness, you’ve got to be prepared to answer whatever questions come,” she said. “There are serious concerns in light of the news within the last 24 hours,” referring to Facebook’s announcement of a resurgence of Russian-linked disinformation trolls.
Zuckerberg, in his prepared testimony, intends to say that Facebook’s foray into digital currency is not intended to compete with existing government-backed currencies, and will address policymakers’ concerns about terrorism financing and money laundering.
“I want to be clear: Facebook will not be part of launching the Libra payments system anywhere in the world until US regulators approve,” he wrote in his prepared remarks, which the committee released Tuesday.
Even as Facebook takes fire for its aspiration to change the global financial system, the company remains under scrutiny for allowing racial discrimination in housing ads, even after being repeatedly warned that could happen. Numerous reports by the investigative outlet ProPublica found that marketers could target their housing ads to whites. The concerns led to a lawsuit in March by the Trump administration alleging the company had violated the Fair Housing Act, and Wednesday’s hearing is also expected to cover housing issues.
Other lawmakers are already signaling they don’t plan to let Zuckerberg off the hook easily — unlike a prior appearance before Congress in 2018, when a number of senators asked him questions that betrayed an ignorance about the basics of Facebook’s business.
“I’ll be studying before this hearing and thinking hard about the best questions to ask,” tweeted California Rep. Katie Porter, a former consumer protection lawyer who has grilled the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase, Equifax and Wells Fargo. Porter promised “tough questions” for Zuckerberg.
And despite Facebook’s efforts to combat election interference, some policymakers argue they still aren’t doing enough.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled on Monday that she plans to bring legislation to a floor vote that could force tech companies like Facebook to treat political ads the same way that radio and TV stations do. Though Republicans have consistently rejected efforts at election security legislation in the House, the bill adds to a growing debate about the power of tech companies to shape political discourse.
Last week, meanwhile, a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report confirmed how Russian disinformation agents exploited social media platforms to spread divisive messages online intended to foment anger and hostility among voters.
“By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016,” the committee said in the report.
Facebook said Monday that the 2020-related interference campaign it discovered carried many of the same hallmarks as the earlier effort, with agents posing as black activists, environmentalists, evangelicals and gun rights groups.