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The Two Faces of Facebook’s Election Plans

Facebook wants to play a big role in the 2020 election. But it seems of two minds on how to get there.

On Wednesday, Facebook announced a “Voting Information Center,” which will tell users how to register to vote, how to vote by mail, and come election day, where to vote. The feature will allow users to turn on alerts reminding them of their polling places, and will highlight communications from verified local election authorities. In an op-ed in USA Today, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook hopes to register 4 million voters nationwide—twice as many as in 2016, with a similar push.

Facebook last week also tiptoed closer to regulating advertisements from politicians, which until now it has refused to do. A new policy will allow users to opt out of all political or “social cause” ads—anything that carries a “paid for by” disclaimer. Then, Thursday, the social media giant removed ads placed by President Trump’s campaign that included a Nazi symbol used in concentration camps; the company said the ads violated its policy against hate speech.

The moves clash in some ways with Zuckerberg’s stated policy of letting all voices be heard. “[A]ccountability only works if we can see what those seeking our votes are saying, even if we viscerally dislike what they say,” the CEO wrote in his op-ed. After the 2016 election, Zuckerberg famously called the notion that social media misinformation had influenced the outcome “a pretty crazy idea.”

In testimony to the House of Representatives Thursday, Facebook security policy head Nathaniel Gleicher again tried to thread the needle. He said Facebook would allow users to post a symbol “to condemn it or to discuss it, but in a situation where we don’t see either of those, we don’t allow it on the platform and we’ll remove it.”

For Facebook, the solution to democracy continues to be more people looking at and using Facebook.

“At a time when we’re all stuck in front of our screens at home, you have to think the effect of Facebook would be more than it was four years ago,” says Nathaniel Persily, a law professor who studies American elections at Stanford Law School. He called the voting information center “a welcome and critical development.”

But Facebook’s shifting decisions on misinformation have placed it in a tight spot. The company won praise for its quick work to dispel Covid-19 misinformation. But Zuckerberg angered both outside critics and his own employees by refusing to fact check Trump’s posts, even after Twitter made it more difficult for users to view one tweet and attached a warning to others.

Civil rights activists reportedly told Zuckerberg on a phone call that the decision not to fact check Trump’s violent language betrayed a lack of understanding about racism, violence, and voter suppression. Last week, groups including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League said they would encourage big companies not to buy Facebook ads in the month of July. A handful of Facebook employees took the rare step of publicly criticizing the company’s stance. (Even more rare: A few publicly quit over it.)

Meanwhile, the Trump administration responded by proposing changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—the federal law that shields internet companies from lawsuits stemming from user posts.

Allowing users to opt out of political ads could prove popular. In a recent Gallup Poll, 72 percent of respondents wanted to block internet companies from allowing campaigns to target them with specific ads.

But the effect may be limited, because users will have to navigate several steps to adjust their ad preferences. “It’s going to be people with more technical skills and are more discerning who are going to opt out, and those are not the people we worry would be manipulated by misinformation,” says Shannon McGregor, who studies the role of social media in political processes at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

On the other hand, McGregor says, the move could penalize political challengers, who need to pay for exposure to new audiences and constituents. “This is taking away from the voice of newcomers,” she says. Political strategists have complained about the late coming policy, implemented just 140 days before the November election.

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