Silicon Valley figures launch open attack on Facebook’s acceptance of political lies

Image: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
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Facebook has decided it has standards when it comes to truth—just not for politicians.

Earlier this month, it said that politicians were free to lie in their ads, even if their message contained conspiracy theories designed to mislead voters. That policy shift flew directly in the face of a platform integrity push formulated after Facebook was widely used for misleading propaganda campaigns, for example to promote Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

This week, more than 50 tech CEOs, investors, and other figures in Silicon Valley wrote an open letter made public this week, calling for Facebook to rescind its policy and establish baseline standards of accuracy.

“The trust and reputation of social media platforms, and in our electoral process in turn, are undermined by the industry’s inaction,” said the open letter, a draft of which was viewed on Medium. “Tacitly condoning the spread of false information in political advertising is irresponsible and wrong, and damaging to our democracy.”

While top executives from tech giants haven’t signed on, those who have include Diana Dorobek, a senior director at Oracle, and Faruq Ahmad, a founding partner at Palo Alto Capital Advisors. All endorsements were made in the signatories’ personal capacity.

The issue of fake ads on social networks is coming to a head once again, after the Trump campaign tried to broadcast a TV ad falsely claiming that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion to dismiss a prosecutor investigating a Ukraine gas company with ties to his son Hunter. There is no evidence to support this. Networks from CNN to NBCUniversal refused to air the Trump-Biden ad. Facebook accepted it, however, and it has since been viewed more than 5 million times.

In response, Democratic campaigns have gone on the offensive, accusing Facebook of giving free rein to Trump and anyone else to wage disinformation campaigns, despite promises of transparency by the company.

“Facebook has chosen to sell Americans’ personal data to politicians looking to target them with disproven lies and conspiracy theories, crowding out the voices of working Americans,” said Bill Russo, a communications director for the Biden campaign, in a statement after Zuckerberg’s speech on the topic yesterday (Oct 17).  “[His] choice to cloak Facebook’s policy in a feigned concern for free expression demonstrates how unprepared his company is for this unique moment in our history and how little it has learned over the past few years.”

In a written response to protests from Biden’s campaign earlier this month, Facebook reiterated that no lies directly stated by a campaign would be reviewed for accuracy, as other print publications and broadcasters often do.

“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” wrote Katie Harbath, Facebook’s public policy director for global elections and former chief digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in a letter obtained by Quartz. “Thus, when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party factcheckers.”

Letters from Facebook responding to the Biden campaign’s objections over misleading ads.
Letters from Facebook responding to the Biden campaign’s objections over misleading ads.
Image: Quartz

The organizer of the letter, Dilawar Syed, CEO of AI health care company Lumiata, said the letter was gaining traction among technology and marketing executives.

“When people know [Facebook’s policies], they are stunned. We are still paying the price of the chaos from the last election and the ads that triggered this,” he said in a phone interview. “The same thing can happen as 2016: You’ll have lies and disinformation campaigns from foreign governments, like Russia, and the Trump campaign.”