Skip to main content

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, seen here in Munich on Feb. 15, 2020, said Thursday that Facebook would bar campaigns from purchasing new ads featuring political and social issues for seven days ahead of the Nov. 3 elections.The Associated Press

Facebook will ban new political ads in the week leading up to the U.S. elections, a significant shift for the social-media giant, which has long resisted calls to curb political speech.

Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that Facebook would bar campaigns from purchasing new ads featuring political and social issues for seven days ahead of the Nov. 3 elections. Existing ads would be allowed to remain on the platform, he added, and advertisers would be allowed to adjust which voters were targeted to see ads.

The move is a reversal for Mr. Zuckerberg, who has repeatedly argued that he does not want Facebook to become “the arbiter of truth.” The social-media giant has resisted censoring or fact-checking election-related advertising even as rival platforms such as Twitter, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, and Snap have taken steps to limit, or even ban, political ads.

But Mr. Zuckerberg signalled Thursday that he is increasingly concerned about the role Facebook might play in spreading misinformation, aiding voter suppression and encouraging civil unrest surrounding this year’s presidential election.

“The U.S. elections are just two months away, and with COVID-19 affecting communities across the country, I’m concerned about the challenges people could face when voting,” he wrote in a blog post. “I’m also worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to be finalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country. This election is not going to be business as usual.”

The advertising ban was part of a series of election-related changes Facebook announced on Thursday. The social-media giant also said it would start removing posts discouraging people from voting, including claims that people can catch COVID-19 if they vote.

Facebook will also attach labels to posts by candidates who falsely claim victory before official election results are available. Democrats have said they fear that President Donald Trump will attempt to claim victory on election night, even though the final outcome of the election may not be settled for days or weeks given that many voters are expected to cast ballots by mail.

Hours after announcing the changes, Facebook flagged a post by Mr. Trump that claimed some people should try to vote twice, once by mail and again on election day.

Analysts said the changes mainly appeared to be a way for Facebook to shore up confidence in its election security systems and avoid the kind of backlash it faced in the wake of the 2016 elections, when Russian trolls used the social-media platform to spread misinformation and stoke hot-button issues such as race relations.

“If this goes poorly again, then you know that [Mr. Zuckerberg] is going to be brought up before Congress again,” said Travis Ridout, a professor of government and public policy at Washington State University. If Joe Biden wins the White House and Democrats regain control of the Senate after the elections, that could pave the way for lawmakers to pass regulations reining in the powers of tech giants, he said.

The advertising ban seems focused on limiting the risk that Facebook could be used by campaigns to commit voter suppression in the days leading up to the elections, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

But she questioned how effective Mr. Zuckerberg’s one-week ban in late October would be in a year when voters will be receiving ballots in the mail as early as September. “He seems to be setting up for an election in which everybody’s voting at a voting booth in a physical location and not voting by mail,” she said.

The announcement is an acknowledgment by Facebook that the systems it had put in place ahead of the elections – including requirements that political advertisers register with the platform and verify their identity – aren’t enough to protect against election manipulation, said Jake Levy-Pollans, a California political consultant who works with progressive campaigns and causes.

“They’ve asked the American people ... to trust that the verification and approval process they’ve already put in place will prevent all the bad actors and terrible consequences we saw in 2016,” he said. “Today’s announcement is proof that we can’t rely on their existing systems to do what they said they would do. And so they’ve taken a hatchet to it.”

The changes were likely necessary to give Facebook’s election security teams a chance to properly vet what is expected to be a rush of new ad purchases in the days leading up to the ban, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia.

But it is also evidence that Facebook, which has close to three billion users around the world, has become too big to properly manage speech on its platform, Prof. Vaidhyanathan said.

“There are thousands of elections in the United States running right now to be concluded in November, and Facebook is a factor in every single one of them,” he said. “So to be able to expect Facebook to regulate the ads on all of those, plus all of the interest groups that want to influence those elections, is a pretty unrealistic expectation.”

The advertising ban is also unlikely to address the biggest source of misinformation on Facebook: viral posts by candidates such as Mr. Trump and partisan news outlets such as Breitbart that spread organically by users sharing them on the platform, without anyone having to purchase an ad.

“If a candidate does a livestream on Facebook, that’s not a political ad,” said Adam Sheingate, chair of the political science department at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s just a lot of ways in which the terms can become a little slippery.”

That is most likely to harm smaller campaigns and upstart candidates who rely on last-minute donations and won’t be able to purchase Facebook ads to counter attacks that spread through viral posts. “Somebody could launch an illegitimate attack on you using organic content and you would have no way to use advertising on Facebook to respond,” said Colin Delany, a Washington-based Democratic political consultant.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.