Facebook removed a series of political ads Thursday that were paid for by campaigns representing U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence that featured a Nazi symbol.
The move comes after the company’s decision earlier this week to allow voters to block political advertisements on the social-media platform.
The changes to its controversial hands-off position on policing political speech are taking place after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg became the target of an intense backlash for refusing to censor misleading or violent political ads ahead of the November U.S. presidential election. That stand has increasingly put the tech giant at odds with rival social-media networks.
The ads from the Trump and Pence campaigns featured an inverted red triangle and asked voters to sign a petition against antifa, a network of anti-fascist protesters whom Mr. Trump has blamed for violence during recent racial-justice demonstrations.
Facebook said it had removed both ads and unpaid posts featuring the symbol for violating its policies against organized hate.
“You obviously want to be careful to allow someone to put up a symbol to condemn it, or to discuss it,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy told a House of Representatives committee hearing on election security on Thursday. “But in a situation where we don’t see either of those, we don’t allow it on the platform and we remove it. That’s what we saw in this case with this ad.”
The Anti-Defamation League identified the symbol in the ad as one that Nazi soldiers used to mark political prisoners in concentration camps during the Second World War. The Trump campaign argued the symbol was an “emoji” used by antifa protesters.
Earlier this week, Mr. Zuckerberg published an op-ed in USA Today defending his company’s decision not to fact-check most political ads while also announcing that Facebook would allow users to block political advertisements as part of the social network’s efforts to prepare for the November presidential election. The option to block political ads would start in the United States and be rolled to other countries by the fall.
While it is not the first time Facebook has removed ads from Mr. Trump – it took down ads in March that implied voters could fill out the 2020 census by sending a text message to the Trump campaign – efforts to curb the reach of political messages are somewhat of a departure for Facebook.
Mr. Zuckerberg has frequently argued that voters should be able to judge political speech for themselves even as rivals such as Google, Twitter and Snap have all taken steps to limit or ban political advertising. And Facebook has maintained a narrow set of exceptions to its policy of not policing political speech compared with platforms such as Twitter.
Mr. Zuckerberg drew fire in May for refusing to remove a post by Mr. Trump calling for looters to be shot, even as Twitter flagged a similar statement that Mr. Trump had published on its site.
In an e-mail, Facebook said that its decision to remove the Trump campaign ads on Thursday is consistent with Mr. Zuckerberg’s long-standing opinions on how to moderate political speech. ”Our position has long been to allow as much room for expression as possible. However, if content violates our Community Standards, we will remove it.”
Facebook’s policies on political ads thrust the tech giant into the centre of a controversy over the role that social networks could play in spreading false information and foreign interference in the coming U.S. elections.
Several civil-rights groups this week began urging advertisers to boycott Facebook in July, saying the social-media network had not done enough to curb hate speech on its platform.
Yet Facebook’s policies have also divided some of the company’s critics. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has called on Facebook to crack down on misinformation from political campaigns.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, argues that Facebook is too quick to censor conservative voices. Last month, he issued an executive order threatening to rewrite a law that protects social-media companies from being liable for content published on their platforms.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department released a plan to overhaul that law – known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Among the proposals, it recommended rewriting language that allows social-media giants broad discretion to remove content they deem “objectionable.”
Legal experts have said that the proposal, which would have to be passed by Congress, would be unlikely to significantly restrict how social networks police their platforms, but could put pressure on tech giants to be more transparent about their content-moderation decisions.
Facebook opposed changes to the law on Thursday. “The Trump administration has said we censored too much content, and Democrats and civil-rights groups are saying that we aren’t taking down enough,” Facebook said in a statement. “Section 230 allows us to focus on what matters most: fighting harmful content while protecting political speech.”
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