Facebook last week unveiled an expansion of its previously announced policies to fight confusion, misinformation and general malfeasance as election results roll in next month. These steps include a much-discussed suspension of all social issue, electoral and political ads after polls close on Nov. 3, in addition to the already existing ban on new political ads in the previous week. The change is more distraction than solution; political ads were only the problem insofar as they were a loophole through which false claims could slip. Those false claims are the real menace — which is why Facebook’s other efforts are more important, and why on their own they’re unlikely to be enough.
The debate over political ads started as a fight about fact-checking. A freeze on ads after the election might do some good by preventing President Trump from misleading voters about the results, yet it will also prevent his opponents from correcting the record, should he continue to churn out the lies he is accustomed to sharing in his normal, unmonetized posts. And because the president has also rallied around him a right-wing apparatus of fringe personalities ready to share his latest claim, he holds the advantage. Facebook’s proposals on this front are promising, but their effects on democracy will be in the details.
Facebook already planned to append “informational” labels to premature declarations of victory, and to continue applying labels to content concerning the legitimacy of the election. Now it will extend its partnership with Reuters to put notifications of the latest results atop Facebook and Instagram — plus, after major media outlets announce a victor, it will add that person’s name to posts from both candidates. The question is what these labels will look like. Does a post from Mr. Trump claiming he has won before ballots have been tallied deserve the same label as a post from Joe Biden counseling supporters to wait, or ought the former be called out explicitly as incorrect? Then there’s the content Facebook theoretically will remove outright, such as posts calling for poll watchers that include militaristic or otherwise intimidating language. Where will the platform draw its lines?
This last update to Facebook’s policies cuts to the core of the problem. The company is essentially playing catch-up to the president and his allies, who have been exhorting supporters to “defend” their ballots or join an “army.” Tweak after tweak responds to the unprecedented reality of a leader determined to undermine the integrity of the election. A recent paper from scholars at Harvard University tracking the disinformation campaign surrounding mail-in voting determined that social media played only a supporting role in an effort that was driven by mass media and elites. Facebook could and should fact-check more, or take down more, and it could even adjust its underlying algorithm that rewards sensationalism. But the platform cannot fix Donald Trump. It can only try to manage his deceptions.