Following the 2016 election, it became clear social media sites had been used to spread false information, including bogus ads placed by foreign entities. Social media companies promised to clean up their act, but the events of the 2018 campaign cycle suggest that was more lip service than serious commitment.
Social media sites continued to promote paid advertisements with little basis in reality. And when tech companies did reject ads, the decisions appeared driven by partisanship, not any combating of false claims.
The most notable rejection occurred earlier this year when Elizabeth Heng, a Republican congressional candidate in California, tried to place a video ad that provided her basic biography and platform. The video, titled “Great things come from great adversity,” began with the story of her parents’ escape from the Cambodian genocide, illustrated by historic photos. Facebook refused to place the ad, saying it violated the company’s advertising policies, which ban ads that contain “shocking” content or depict “violence or threats of violence.” Twitter also banned the ad, saying it had “inappropriate” content.
That produced well-deserved blowback since both social media giants were banning an ad for distributing accurate historical information. The companies soon backed down.
Contrast the scrutiny Heng’s ad received with that given to another ad distributed in the final days of the 2018 campaign. It warned hunters that if they voted in North Dakota’s elections, “you may forfeit licenses you have in other states.” That was news to North Dakota’s secretary of state and the state’s wildlife department. The ad was traced to the North Dakota Democratic Party; the state’s incumbent Democratic U.S. senator was in a tough re-election race.
Facebook verified the hunter ad, even though it contained false information and may have violated election laws since it appeared designed to suppress voter turnout. One wonders how Facebook officials could look at the ad and not blink, given how improbable its claims were, yet conclude that the child of Cambodian immigrants discussing her family’s history was inappropriate.
The hunter ad wasn’t the only instance of ridiculous content getting by the supposedly heightened review of social media giants.
Vice News, posing as a political ad-buyer, received Facebook’s approval to run ads in the name of all 100 members of the U.S. Senate. Vice News also received approval from Facebook to run ads “paid for” by Islamic State and Vice President Mike Pence. …
In June, when Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation released survey information on Americans’ views of media, the poll found U.S. adults believe that 62 percent of news in newspapers, television or radio is biased, 44 percent is inaccurate, and more than a third is misinformation. But the ratings for social media outlets were worse. Americans said they believed 80 percent of news seen on social media is biased, 64 percent is inaccurate, and 65 percent is misinformation.
The tech giants did little to improve those perceptions in the 2018 election season.