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By Emily Glazer
In a break with other tech companies, Facebook Inc. said it wouldn't limit how political ads are targeted to potential voters, but would instead give users tools to see fewer of those ads on its platforms.
The move by Facebook, which says a private company shouldn't decide how campaigns are able to reach potential voters, is at odds with how other tech firms are approaching political ads leading up to the 2020 election.
The social-media giant also announced changes it says will boost transparency about how political ads are shared.
The company based its policy "on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public," according to a memo from Rob Leathern, Facebook's director of product management. "This does not mean that politicians can say whatever they like in advertisements on Facebook."
The memo said all Facebook users have to follow its community standards, which ban hate speech, harmful content and content designed to intimidate voters or stop them from exercising their right to vote.
Facebook and other technology companies have faced increasing pressure to limit the spread of misleading or false information. Facebook took a different approach in its decision to increase transparency and give users more control over what they see compared with moves by Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google to largely block or limit targeting of political ads, respectively.
Facebook acknowledged it considered limiting political-ad targeting but ultimately chose not to do so. The company said it consulted with a number of nonprofits, political groups and campaigns--both Democrat and Republican--who, it said, consider Facebook's platforms key ways to reach audiences.
"Ultimately, we don't think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies, which is why we are arguing for regulation that would apply across the industry," Mr. Leathern said.
The announcement comes two days after the New York Times reported on an internal post from Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth, in which he said he believed the company played a central role in the 2016 presidential election.
"So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn't get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I've ever seen from any advertiser. Period," Mr. Bosworth wrote.
With less than a year until the 2020 U.S. election and roughly $3 billion expected to be spent on digital political advertising, a lack of uniform rules for the ads has led to confusion about exactly what is allowed on the platforms, how intensely new policies will be enforced and whether advertising strategies and budgets will need to change further.
Political advertising will continue to increase with the first Democratic presidential nominating contest in Iowa on Feb. 3.
Watchdogs including lawmakers and advocacy groups have called for greater oversight of political advertising following revelations that Russian entities purchased digital ads designed to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Google earlier this week launched its new policy globally that no longer allows advertisers to target political messages based on users' interests inferred from their browsing or search histories, among other changes. Twitter stopped accepting most political ads in November. Facebook, meanwhile, in September said it would no longer fact-check certain ads.
Facebook said its new control feature for political ads will roll out in the U.S. early this summer on Facebook and Instagram. It will later expand to other locations.
The company said seeing fewer political and social-issue ads was a common request from users.
The expanded transparency features, which give users more control over how advertisers reach them, will launch in the first quarter of 2020. Those will apply to all countries where there is a "paid for by" disclaimer on ads.
Facebook said while its users have been able to hide all ads from a specific advertiser in their ad preferences, they will soon be able to stop seeing ads based on how an advertiser constructed its list of targeted users. In addition, users will be able to opt in to see messages that are targeted to a group that doesn't include them.
For example, Facebook said, if a campaign decided to stop serving certain users fundraising ads because it deemed them unlikely to donate, those users could choose to continue seeing such ads.
The Wall Street Journal previously reported Facebook was weighing steps to increase the minimum number of people who can be targeted in political ads on its platform from 100 to a few thousand, among other changes. The potential moves were being considered as part of an effort to make it harder for advertisers to microtarget, which has been criticized for enabling political actors to single out groups for misleading or false ads that aren't seen by the broader public.
Facebook said Thursday that its data showed more than 85% of ad spending from U.S. presidential candidates is for ad campaigns targeted to audiences estimated at more than 250,000 people.
"We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public debate--including much criticism of Facebook's position," Mr. Leathern said. "We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections."
Write to Emily Glazer at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 09, 2020 06:14 ET (11:14 GMT)
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