With more companies joining a planned boycott of Facebook ad spend in July, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has today announced that The Social Network will roll out new labels to better explain why some content from politicians, which technically violates platform rules, has been left active and unchecked.
Zuckerberg made the announcement via Facebook Live, following news that both Verizon and Unilever had joined the Facebook ads boycott proposed by a coalition of civil rights groups. Procter and Gamble, which controls around $6.8 billion in annual ad spend, is also believed to be considering its position.
Zuckerberg notes that the upcoming US Presidential election was always going to be heated, even before COVID-19 and the #BlackLivesMatter protests, but now, the situation is even more tense.
For its part, Zuckerberg says that Facebook has already committed to "the largest information campaign on voting in American history", which will see how to vote prompts displayed at the top of all user News Feeds. But it's clear, Zuckerberg says, that Facebook needs to do more to protect the election, and promote healthy civic engagement.
Zuckerberg first explains Facebook's new push to eliminate voter suppression, which will undoubtedly be tied into COVID-19:
"For example, if someone says on election day that a city has been identified as a COVID hot spot, is that voter suppression?"
Zuckerberg says that Facebook will work to detect and remove any such posts and comments, which, additionally, will include false claims like "ICE agents are going to be checking immigration papers at polling centers".
In addition to this, Facebook will also display authoritative information on polling center updates within its new Voting Information Center panel.
Zuckerberg also that Facebook will adopt new policies to "prohibit a wider category of hateful content in ads". Specifically, Zuckerberg says that ads which include claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexual orientation, are a threat to the physical safety or health of anyone else will be banned.
Facebook has always had restrictions on such in place, but now, Facebook will broaden its enforcement to further address hate speech and division.
But the last point is probably the most relevant, particularly in the case of the ad boycott.
As per Zuckerberg:
"We're going to start labeling content that we find newsworthy that might otherwise violate our policies. A handful of times a year, we make a decision to leave up content that would otherwise violate our policies because we consider that the public interest value outweighs the risk of that content."
Often, Zuckerberg reiterates, seeing speech from politicians is in the public interest.
"In the same that news outlets will often report what a politician says, we think it's important that people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms too."
Zuckerberg says that the new labels will provide more transparency as to why Facebook has opted to leave certain posts up, while Facebook will also still allow sharing and discussion of such, despite the warning label.
"We’re still going to allow people to share this content, in order to condemn it, just like we do with other problematic content, because this is an important part of how we discuss what is acceptable in our society. But we're going to add a prompt to tell people that the content that they're sharing may violate our policies."
That sounds very similar to the approach that Twitter has taken of late with controversial comments from US President Donald Trump, which has since lead to a new push from the US Government to essentially try to stop social platforms from adding any such annotations. Zuckerberg has previously criticized Twitter's approach in this respect.
The main difference is in how people are able to interact with these posts. On Twitter, once a warning label or note is added to a violating tweet, engagement options with that Tweet are limited, with users no longer able to Like, reply, or retweet it (people can still retweet with comment). Facebook doesn't appear, based on Zuckerberg's comments, to be going to that length, but it will add a note to explain why it's opted not to remove the post, despite it violating the regular rules.
Will that be enough to appease those calling for a boycott of Facebook ads? Likely not.
While Zuckerberg repeatedly notes that Facebook is against any kind of hate speech, it will still allow such on its platform, and it will still allow sharing of such. A warning label is a significant step, but we'll have to wait and see what it looks like in practice before we understand what the potential impacts will actually be.
Interestingly, Zuckerberg has also noted that Facebook does not apply any "newsworthy" exemption to any content which incites violence or suppresses voting.
"Even if a politician or government official says it, if we determine that the content may lead to violence of deprive people of their right to vote, we're going to take that content down, no matter who says it."
So, going on this advice, this post, which is essentially what sparked the ad boycott push, does not, in Facebook's opinion, violate its rules relating to threats of violence.
That could mean that Facebook's new rule enforcement could also be more limited than some might expect.
We won't know till it's actually in practice, but at the least, it does seem that the #StopHateforProfit is getting Facebook's attention - even though the company has stated that it does not make policy changes "tied to revenue pressure".
It seems that this is not entirely true, and with other big advertisers now coming under public pressure to announce their support for the ad pause, and Facebook's revenues already under increased pressure due to the expanded impacts of COVID-19, maybe this will see more significant change to address more forms of division on The Social Network.
UPDATE: By the end of Friday (6/26), Coca Cola, Hersheys and Honda had all also joined the Facebook ads boycott.