Facebook has announced it’ll further restrict ads that cast doubt on the integrity of the American election. The obvious motivation for this is that the President of the United States is, himself, threatening that process as a central pillar of his campaign strategy in the closing weeks. This has short and long-run costs for American democracy and almost everyone, including Facebook, agrees it needs to be stopped.
In the past, Facebook has been resistant to limits on political speech, particularly in ads, arguing that other forms of accountability (the media, “counter-speech” and more recently labelling posts and providing voting information) are more appropriate. Something has clearly changed in the company’s thinking so allow us (if you will), to speculate on the organisational psychology and politics of Facebook right now.
At this moment, Facebook is acting as a defacto unofficial regulator to a large chunk of American (and other) elections. Like a regulator, you can attribute its actions to a set of rules, and any limitations as being down to a lack of capacity to implement them, along with the need to be quasi-judicial (and therefore quite slow) in doing so.
But the underlying motivations for those rules need to be understood differently. They’re not absolute, written in stone. They’re just as political as they would be for an official regulator mandated by a democratically elected government – formed from a balancing act between competing views, some from the top-down, others from the bottom-up.
What are those motivations at Facebook? As we approach the election, with Biden holding a big lead and the majority of Facebook staff being young, urban and definitively anti-Trump, there’s clearly a strong, internal, upwards pressure to do things differently.
For Facebook, there’s now little risk to hurting Trump. It’s a company driven by data, and the political data says Trump will lose. If Facebook reduces his ability to cast doubt on the result of the election and the security of voting, it further reduces the impact of one of his closing arguments and his ability to mobilise his base with that claim. With Facebook seemingly confident of the result, they needn’t worry about retaliation from a second Trump administration, because there won’t be one. The top-down arguments that protected the company’s long term regulatory position look relatively weaker, and so their political ad policies can change.
It’s far from the same as today’s situation, but we saw a similar dynamic when we worked on the Irish abortion referendum in 2018. The referendum was very likely to be won and Facebook (and Google) staff in Ireland were rightly worried about inflows of advertising from the evangelical American right. Both companies eventually announced a ban on foreign ads, a few weeks out from the vote.
That’s where they are today too. By updating these policies, even at this late stage, Facebook can hold with the argument that “in the end, we always did the right thing for American democracy”. This, and the result of the election, will likely to reduce the outflow of staff from the company in the coming years.
And it’ll also be a useful argument in the regulatory debates that’ll be held in the halls of a Democrat-controlled D.C.
A no-brainer politically, but also organisationally.