Biden urges Facebook to overhaul political content rules

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has hit out at Facebook, calling on the social media group to crack down on misinformation and fact-check political advertising ahead of the US 2020 election.

Mr Biden on Thursday published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, alongside a petition that urged the social media group to change its policies around election misinformation and disinformation.

The move is the latest sign of escalating tension between US politicians from both parties and internet platforms over policing political speech and advertising. 

Among the recommendations, Mr Biden calls for the platform to “promote authoritative and trustworthy sources of election information, rather than the rants of bad actors and conspiracy theorists”, and for the company to change its controversial decision not to fact check political advertising “especially within two weeks of election day”. 

“Tens of millions of Americans rely on Facebook as a news source. But the company continues to amplify misinformation and lets candidates pay to target and confuse voters with lies,” Mr Biden said. 

Facebook quickly responded in a statement that the US government should set rules around campaigning.

“Just as they have done with broadcast networks — where the US government prohibits rejecting politicians’ campaign ads — the people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them,” Facebook said. “There is an election coming in November and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it.” 

The campaign comes after US president Donald Trump last month ordered a legal review of Section 230, the law that offers social media groups immunity from being sued for user-generated content, which would make it harder for tech groups to remove or fact check posts. 

Mr Trump was spurred into action after Facebook’s smaller rival Twitter added fact-check and warning labels to several of the president’s tweets including one that it said was “glorifying violence” amid the protests against the killing of George Floyd. 

By contrast Facebook did not censor the president, citing a commitment to freedom of expression and arguing the platform should not act as a kingmaker. 

The move angered activists who believe the platform should actually police content more closely, and prompted a backlash from employees.

Facebook on Thursday noted it was caught between the two presidential candidates: “Two weeks ago the President of the United States issued an executive order directing Federal agencies to prevent social media sites from engaging in activities like fact-checking political statements. This week, the Democratic candidate for president started a petition calling on us to do the exact opposite”. 

Last week, Facebook said it would review its content policies “allowing discussion and threats of state use of force”, as well as around voter suppression. 

Last year, Mr Zuckerberg also made the contentious decision to allow political advertising on the platform even if it is misleading, and to allow the microtargeting of narrow groups of users. Twitter opted to ban political advertising altogether. 

Facebook’s decision sparked retaliation from the Biden campaign after the platform ran a false political advert claiming the former vice-president blackmailed Ukrainian officials in order to thwart an investigation into his son Hunter.

Nevertheless, the Biden campaign has increased its Facebook advertising, spending nearly $5m on the platform over the past week, according to Facebook’s advertising archives. Mr Trump has spent about $1.3m over the same period*.

Separately on Thursday, Chris Cox, Facebook’s former chief product officer who quit unexpectedly last year over disagreements with Mr Zuckerberg, announced he was returning to his old job.

Last year, Mr Zuckerberg said that Mr Cox — then third in command after Mr Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg — was leaving because he wanted “to do something else”.

However several people familiar with the situation said that Mr Cox had opposed Mr Zuckerberg’s plans to merge the messaging services of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram into one encrypted system.

On Thursday, Mr Cox said he had “reached out” to Mr Zuckerberg “a while ago” about helping Facebook, citing the coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis and “a reckoning of racial injustice”.

*This article has been amended since original publication to note that Mr Biden’s campaign has spent nearly $5m and Mr Trump’s campaign has spent $1.3m on Facebook advertising in the past week.