Facebook Knows This U.S. Election Is Going to Be a Catastrophe

Image: Drew Angerer, Getty Images
Image: Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Facebook has claimed for years that it works to safeguard elections (remember the War Room?) — yet somehow all of that safeguarding hasn’t stopped voting misinformation from proliferating, or the Trump campaign from taking an active role in spreading it. Keep in mind when you read Mark Zuckerberg’s latest U.S. election-related announcement: “We won’t accept new political ads in the week before the election.”

That’s the type headline most media outlets have run with, but don’t be fooled into thinking that this is anything resembling a much hoped-for political ad ban. Facebook will continue to show people previously purchased ads (that may include lies), and the announcement is less of a useful new policy and more of an admission that Facebook anticipates a series of outrageous but predictable events — and will let them fly with minimal interference.

For one, so long as posts (seemingly ads or regular posts) don’t say that people will get the coronavirus from voting, people can use the pandemic to “discourage voting,” with a coronavirus information link. No really: this is the actual language of Mark’s bold new strategy:

We’ll remove posts that claim that people will get COVID-19 if they take part in voting, and we’ll attach a link to authoritative information about the coronavirus to posts that might use COVID-19 to discourage voting.

If a campaign or candidate seeks to delegitimize the election outcome, they can do so, with an informational label. Facebook will allow a certain candidate to claim victory before the election outcome, only adding a label redirecting people to Reuters and the U.S. National Election Pool.

Facebook seems to be is preparing for a widespread voter intimidation campaign and a scenario in which Trump attempts to preemptively lay claim to the Oval Office via Facebook. In a post, Mark Zuckerberg said that he is “worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalised, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country.”

Anticipating this, he said that Facebook is acting on voter suppression (which is already forbidden in its community standards but also rampant on the platform) by continuing to remove explicit lies about voting requirements, and is “expanding this policy to include implicit misrepresentations about voting too, like ‘I hear anybody with a driver’s licence gets a ballot this year’, because it might mislead you about what you need to do to get a ballot, even if that wouldn’t necessarily invalidate your vote by itself.”

You might imagine that, knowing the importance of this election and the scrutiny Facebook is under to fuck up less badly than in 2016, the labels would at add useful context, or at least bluntly state when the content of a post is an outright lie — but at least in the current implementation of these policies, you’d be wrong. Here it is, in action, implemented just this morning on Trump’s guide to voting twice:

Image: Screengrab

The refrain used by so many social media companies — that “good speech” counters “bad speech” in some imaginary marketplace of ideas — conveniently camouflages the game Trump is playing on the platforms. The only result is “more speech,” the only winners in that environment are the people screaming the loudest, and the platforms that get to wash their hands of any real responsibility.

“It’s important that campaigns can run get out the vote campaigns, and I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech,” he wrote, “but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims.”

Gizmodo has reached out to Facebook for comment and will update the post if we hear back.