Facebook announced on Saturday that it was banning ads that promote weapons accessories and protective equipment until January 22, after US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, “out of an abundance of caution.”
The company’s announcement came after a Buzzfeed News investigation found that Facebook was delivering ads for body armour, gun holsters, and other military equipment next to content promoting election misinformation and the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. According to Buzzfeed, the ads were also shown to people who followed right-wing extremist pages or groups on Facebook. The company was alerted to this practice by its own employees in recent days but chose not to take action until now.
“This looks serious to me because it can be read as 1) us profiting off of the events 2) encouraging people to take some kind direction to the events,” a Facebook employee wrote on the company’s internal forum in relation to ads about military gear, per Buzzfeed.
In a blog post about its preparations ahead of Inauguration Day on January 20, Facebook stated that it already banned ads for weapons, and that it would extend that prohibition to other products.
“We are banning ads that promote weapon accessories and protective equipment in the US at least through January 22, out of an abundance of caution,” the company said. “We already prohibit ads for weapons, ammunition and weapon enhancements like silencers. But we will now also prohibit ads for accessories such as gun safes, vests and gun holsters in the US.”
The ads prompted three U.S. senators to write a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg requesting him to act immediately and create a policy permanently banning ads for products “designed for use in lethal tactical operations and armed combat.”
The Buzzfeed report also elicited a response from the attorneys general of Washington, D.C., Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, who in a letter asked Will Castleberry, Facebook’s vice president for U.S. state policy and community engagement, to place a moratorium on ads for weapons accessories and armour until Jan. 22 or until a time when the heightened threat of extremist violence subsides.
The ban comes one day after Facebook blocked users from creating new events near the White House, the U.S. Capitol building, and any other state capitol building through Inauguration Day. The company said that it would also review the events related to the inauguration again and remove those that violated its policies, as well as continue to block non-U.S.-based accounts and pages from creating events in the U.S.
Some restrictions also extended to certain people based in the U.S., Facebook said, who will be unable to create live videos, events, groups, or pages if they were found to be repeat violators of the company’s policies.
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Social media platforms played a central role in the riot at the Capitol, led by supporters of President Donald Trump, which resulted in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol police officer.
Days before the event, the president’s supported promoted it extensively on Facebook and Instagram, owned by Facebook, the Washington Post reported. In fact, more than 100,000 users used hashtags such as #StopTheSteal or #FightForTrump. They also gathered on so-called “free speech” platforms like Parler and the walkie-talkie app Zello, among others, to conspire to overthrow the election.