Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram

Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram
Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram

Summary

The company weighed free-speech considerations in changing its policy last year, a move that went largely unnoticed.

Meta Platforms will let political ads on Facebook and Instagram question the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, one of several changes the social-media company and other platforms have made to loosen constraints on campaign advertising for 2024.

Meta made the change last year, but it hasn’t gained wide attention. The company decided to allow political advertisers to say past elections were “rigged" or “stolen" but prevented them from questioning the legitimacy of ongoing and coming elections.

Executives at Meta made the decision based on free-speech considerations after weighing past U.S. elections in which the results might have been contested by a portion of the electorate, according to people familiar with the issue.

The updated policy is part of a number of changes Meta has made that might fundamentally alter its influence and reach compared with in past elections, including a move to adjust its algorithm in a way that de-emphasizes organic political content on Facebook, the people said.

Some candidates already appear to have questioned elections in ads. Former President Donald Trump ran a campaign ad on Facebook in August that was within the bounds of the updated policy. “We won in 2016. We had a rigged election in 2020 but got more votes than any sitting president," Trump said in the ad. “We’re going to win like never before."

Meta and other platforms have made a number of changes to election policies ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Google’s YouTube in June announced that it would stop removing claims that widespread fraud occurred in the 2020 and past U.S. elections. X, formerly known as Twitter, announced in August that it would once again allow political ads after banning them in 2019.

Katie Harbath, a former Facebook public-policy director who wasn’t involved in the decision, said it would be challenging for social-media companies to preach free speech yet ban politicians from questioning the results of the 2020 election, which has become such a significant part of the public discourse.

“In the U.S., they have a right to say that," said Harbath, who is now elections program lead at the Integrity Institute, an advocacy group that aims to study and address the social harms of internet platforms. Efforts to undermine coming elections can have more consequences, including reducing voter turnout or even leading to political violence. Disputing past elections won’t change results, she said.

Meta’s treatment of political ads is taking on added importance in the 2024 race because the company has already said it is reducing the amount of nonad political content Facebook shows users in their feeds. In April, the company said in a blog post that it would take “steps so people don’t see several posts about politics in a row."

With this change, politicians who relied on organic social-media exposure to reach potential voters won’t be able to do so in 2024, the people said. As a result, the shift is expected to put a greater emphasis on election ads on Facebook and Instagram, testing Meta’s ability to manage updated policy.

Politicians will be able to produce a barrage of ads questioning past elections, said Gina Pak, chief executive of Tech for Campaigns, a digital marketing political organization that works with Democrats. “Today you can create hundreds of pieces of content in the snap of a finger and you can flood the zone," she said.

Contributing to the challenges is Meta’s decision to lay off many of its employees who were working on election policy, the people said. The company let many of them go over its several rounds of layoffs in the past 12 months that resulted in 21,000 employees, or nearly a quarter of Meta’s workforce, being terminated.

The effects of those layoffs are being felt, said Pak, adding that her organization has noticed a slower response time from Meta as well as longer waits for election ads to be approved.

Meta updated its election-ads policy last year in the lead-up to the Brazilian general election in October 2022 and the U.S. midterm elections in November 2022, the people said.

The new policy states that Meta doesn’t allow “ads that call into question the legitimacy of an upcoming or ongoing election" in the U.S., Brazil, Israel and Italy.

The previous policy said the company didn’t allow “ads that claim voter fraud (such as voter impersonation, duplicate voting, or ineligible individuals voting) is widespread and/or alters the outcome of elections and/or results in a fraudulent or corrupt election."

Last year Meta considered banning political ads altogether. The company temporarily banned new ads in the final week of the 2020 U.S. general election and the months afterward.

Meta ultimately decided that it would continue to accept money to run election ads on its services, a decision Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg weighed in on directly, the people said. The conversation then shifted to how, if at all, its election-ads policy should change.

Among the options on the table were for Meta to keep its 2020 policy in place, scrap its election-ads restrictions, ban the delegitimization of any elections or go with the policy that was ultimately adopted, which allows advertisers to claim that previous elections weren’t legitimate.

During the decision-making, Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta and former U.K. deputy prime minister, argued that the company should avoid making determinations about which elections of years past in the U.S. and elsewhere were legitimate, the people said.

Among U.S. elections that were cited as reasons for adopting the policy now in place was the 2000 U.S. presidential election, in which a Republican, George W. Bush, won after a Supreme Court decision. Another election cited was the 1960 U.S. election in which a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, won in the midst of allegations of voter fraud from various Republicans.

The company wrote the policy in hopes that it would stand the test of time over several countries’ elections, the people said.

The new Meta policy was introduced after primary elections for the U.S. midterms in 2022, when Republican candidates who said they believed the 2020 election was stolen weren’t able to run ads making the claim to distinguish themselves from others in their party.

Write to Salvador Rodriguez at salvador.rodriguez@wsj.com

Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram
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Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram
Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram
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Meta Allows Ads Claiming Rigged 2020 Election on Facebook, Instagram
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