The social media giant is bracing for a chaotic 2020 election in which fake news, armed militias or Covid-19 fears could undermine the vote
Facebook will ban all new political adverts during the final week of the United States presidential election as part of a last ditch effort to prevent runaway misinformation.
In his most sweeping intervention yet, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg warned that the coronavirus pandemic has put a “free and fair” election in doubt as voters struggle with postal ballot deadlines, social distancing measures and shadowy attempts to meddle with the contest.
He vowed to limit message forwarding on Facebook’s Messenger app, ban posts and adverts that use the threat of coronavirus 19 to discourage in-person voting, and bring forward a planned crackdown on false claims about polling conditions.
The company will also provide real time vote count data and slap warning labels on posts criticising the process in preparation for a nightmare scenario in which a disputed election triggers “civil unrest across the country”.
Hours after Mr Zuckerberg’s announcement, Facebook effectively accused President Donald Trump of advocating election fraud by banning a video in which he encouraged voters to attempt to vote twice in order to test their local election systems.
Mr Zuckerberg said: “The US elections are just two months away, and with Covid-19 affecting communities across the country, I’m concerned about the challenges people could face when voting.
“I’m also worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country…
“I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election, but it’s going to take a concerted effort by all of us… to live up to our responsibilities.”
He said that the ban on new adverts was necessary to give journalists and fact-checkers time to debunk deceptive claims in the last hours of the election, despite the restriction on free speech.
He specifically called out the QAnon conspiracy movement, which has used Facebook to spread its message to millions of people, “could be used to organise violence or civil unrest in the period after the elections”.
Yet he did not commit to ending Facebook’s longstanding refusal to fact-check political adverts, leaving that duty to third parties such as journalists.
The move comes after months of pressure on Facebook to ban political ads entirely as both foreign and domestic groups vie to push their message out to highly specific slices of its audience.
It testifies to the enormous power that Facebook wields over the American electoral process by virtue of its near-ubiquity among voters and the dependence of modern political campaigns on its advertising system.
Mr Zuckerberg echoed predictions by some experts that the unprecedented volume of postal voting could cause the election to go undecided for weeks or months after polling day.
Facebook has reportedly been planning for a scenario in which President Trump disputes the result or falsely claims victory too early, which could lead to protests, riots or even armed conflict between anti-fascist activists and pro-Trump militias.
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World news – GB – Facebook to bar new political adverts in the week before the US election