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Facebook Won’t Ban Political Ads, Despite Controversy

Facebook will not remove political advertising from its platform ahead of the UK’s upcoming General Election, despite complaints that the ruling Conservative Party is already trying to influence users with misleading information.

The social network has been under pressure to ban such advertising completely, after Twitter announced plans to do so earlier this month and the Mozilla Foundation and several rights groups signed an open letter urging it and Google to follow suit.

The UK Electoral Commission, Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the cross-party DCMS Select Committee have all called for urgent legislation to regulate political advertising.

However, in an update late last week, Facebook argued that it was not in the business of censoring politicians. Although such ads will be pulled if they incite violence, share previously debunked content or spread misinformation about where, when and how to vote, they won’t be fact-checked like other content, explained head of UK public policy, Rebecca Stimson.

Instead, Facebook is making such ads more transparent, so that recipients can see who has paid for them and find out why they are seeing them.

It is also putting significant resources into tackling foreign interference by removing fake accounts, and has set up an Elections Task Force which will focus on threat intelligence, data science, engineering, operations, legal and other areas ahead of key votes, she said.

The news comes after complaints on both sides of the Atlantic that politicians are already spreading lies via political ads.

The Conservative Party was called out for doctoring a video clip of shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, in which he appeared lost for words when asked about his party’s policy. In the US, Joe Biden’s campaign was rebuffed when it requested Facebook to remove a misleading Trump ad.

Facebook claimed that its approach “is in line with the way political speech and campaigns have been treated in the UK for decades” — i.e. not regulated. However, there is arguably a difference with online advertising in that it might be micro-targeted at a small number of swing voters, thereby covertly peddling disinformation which turns elections.

That’s the argument author Jamie Bartlett made at Infosecurity Europe earlier this year when he warned that such strategies could undermine the validity of election results in many voters' eyes.

Catherine Stihler, CEO of the Open Knowledge Foundation, welcomed Facebook’s attempts to promote greater transparency on its platform.

“However, it remains the case that Facebook is still accepting money for political ads which can contain disinformation, which is why we have called for a moratorium on political ads for the duration of the campaign,” she added,

“Ultimately, the solution to this does not involve self-regulation. The only way to build a fair, free and open digital future in the UK is to update our analogue electoral laws for the digital age.”

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