Facebook has said it will reject political ads that spread misinformation about the outcome of the November 3 election, several hours after Fast Company reported that the company’s stated policies would do nothing to prevent a candidate such as Donald Trump from declaring victory before the final results are tabulated.
“We will be rejecting political ads that claim victory before the results of the 2020 election have been declared,” a Facebook spokesperson told Fast Company, as the company was preparing a tweet clarifying its policy on post-election-night political ads.
As Fast Company originally reported, there is no law and previously was no Facebook policy to stop the Trump campaign, or any other political campaign, from falsely claiming victory through millions of ads starting at 12:01 a.m. Pacific Time on election night.
The policy change is an update to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s September 3 blog post, in which the CEO said that his company would not publish political ads in the week before the election because there wouldn’t be enough time before Election Day to fact-check their claims. When Fast Company reached out, however, the company confirmed that political campaigns would be able to place new ads on Facebook starting November 4.
The company has also announced that it would apply an “informational label” to content that calls into question the legitimacy of the election or its outcome. And it’ll add a label to posts by campaigns or candidates that declare victory before the full results are in. Facebook failed to clarify how its policy relates to ads before this article was published.
In a “normal” election year this might have been less worrisome; in the past, winners have commonly been projected by midnight. But because of mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic, it won’t happen like that in 2020. The result of the presidential race is likely to be very much in doubt when we go to bed on November 3.
And 12:01 a.m. on November 4 could mark the outset of an extremely sensitive and crucial period when election officials take a week or longer to process and tabulate the mail-in ballots used by millions of voters this year. Election integrity experts have said that the in-person votes will be counted first in many jurisdictions and that because higher numbers of his base will likely vote in person, Trump may appear to hold a lead on election night. That could change over the following weeks as mail-in ballots are tabulated.
If the Trump campaign could have used a mass media channel such as Facebook to declare victory in the early hours of November 4, it could send the GOP base into a frenzy of euphoria—and it may go on believing Trump won even after the official ballot count later reveals Biden to be the president-elect. Trump might then declare the election “rigged” (as he did in 2016, even after winning!) and refuse to leave the White House. The nation would find itself in the teeth of a constitutional crisis.
Facebook’s policy on political ads, in general, is that it’s “in the public interest” to see them, even if they contain disinformation.
Zuckerberg said in the September 3 blog post that Facebook would make no further changes before the election, “to ensure there are clear and consistent rules.” However, this latest update points to how the company is continuing to shape its policy in the weeks leading up to the election.
This story was updated after Facebook changed its policy on the content of political ads after the election.