After surviving the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a democratic process historically marked by the amount of false news produced and distributed by doubtful sources, it looks like the American people will face a 2020 presidential campaign plagued by a new type of disinformation: promoted by White House candidates using lots and lots of money.
In recent weeks, some of the most prominent names for next year’s campaign have started to spend huge amounts of money on Facebook ads aiming to take certain (false) information to a targeted audience.
These politicians chose to act this way, aware that fact-checkers can’t flag their claims as false on the platform. The Third Party Fact-Checking Project (3PFC) has never allowed that.
Since Facebook’s verification project began in the United States in 2016, fact-checkers have been forbidden to point out on the platform falsehoods said by politicians in their profiles. It doesn’t matter if the misleading content is posted in a text, a photo and/or a video, or if it’s an organic publication or an ad. Following Facebook’s instructions, politicians can’t be fact-checked on the platform.
The company has said it doesn’t interfere at all in the political debate nor in the freedom of expressing all political opinions.
The consequence of this decision, however, became a topic for discussion in the United States in recent days and may point toward the beginning of a new era of electoral mis/disinformation.
On Oct. 2, concerned with the investigation related to his impeachment process, President Donald Trump posted a Facebook ad attacking former Vice President Joe Biden.
In a 30-second video, posted on Facebook by Trump’s re-election campaign, the U.S. president’s team “reported” to thousands of Facebook users that, when Biden was in the White House, he offered $1 billion to Ukrainians to remove a certain prosecutor from an investigation opened against Hunter Biden for corruption.
Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president, however, has never investigated in Ukraine. Trump’s video spread false content but kept circulating on Facebook for several days, free of any of those common alerts made by fact-checkers on the platform.
Angry at the situation and worried about the extent of the negative message sent about his family, Biden wrote a letter to Facebook on Oct. 9 asking the platform to remove Trump’s announcement and to make it clear that the company did not agree with the official disinformation.
Facebook replied to Biden with another letter. In the text, the company said it would not touch the president’s ad because Facebook believed in freedom of expression and the need to not interfere in the electoral debate. Facebook stressed that, from its point of view, political discourse is already commonly verified.
Biden classified the answer as being “unacceptable,” but noted that he couldn’t do anything else.
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, saw, in that case, an opportunity to get the public’s attention.
Instead of writing a letter, she posted on Facebook an ad saying that Mark Zuckerberg and his company had decided to support Trump in the 2020 elections. Then she explained that this was an example of false news, created simply to emphasize how important it is that Facebook takes action against deceptive political ads.
From the fact-checkers’ point of view, it was curious to see that both ads — Trump’s and Warren’s — brought up similar questions: Has the time come to control the degree of veracity of online advertising? Is our society, which has always known that advertising manufactures some exaggerations and deceptions, ready to accept totally false ads? And what do Americans think of those who make money by publishing false propaganda?
A study by the British newspaper The Guardian using public data released by the Facebook Library Ads has concluded, for example, that Trump’s campaign has spent between $1.3 million and $3.8 million in the last month to promote 5,883 ads. It’s a lot of money and a lot of content. It would take an army of fact-checkers to verify it all.
That is why, from the International Fact-Checking Network’s point of view, what emerges from this discussion is a clear need to give more room for the fact-checkers.
In the United States, IFCN has more than five active verified members. They are organizations that work on a daily basis, under a Code of Principles that requires a commitment to nonpartisanship, transparency and the use of an efficient public correction policy. Knowing this list can help to navigate this new stage of misinformation, this era in which not only posts but also political ads contain false data.
Read the Spanish version of this article at Univision.
Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained a mistake: Trump’s campaign spent millions on ads – not billions. We apologize for the error. It has been corrected.