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Facebook to Give Users the Option to See Fewer Political Ads

Kurt Wagner

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. said it will soon give users the option to see fewer political and social issue advertisements in their feeds, but the company held firm on its controversial stance against fact-checking political ads despite months of criticism.

The social network announced the new user setting, which will also be available in photo-sharing app Instagram, in a blog post Thursday, saying the update is part of an effort to give people more control over what they see ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Facebook also said it won’t change or restrict the ad-targeting tools available to political campaigns, as some of its rivals have done.

Facebook has been at the center of a debate around online political advertising for months. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has stood firm in his belief that Facebook should not fact-check politicians or limit political advertising, a stance that has drawn ire from Democratic presidential hopefuls like Senator Elizabeth Warren. The company maintains that it doesn’t want to be the arbiter of what is true or false in the world of political speech.

Facebook’s policies are based “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,” the company wrote.

Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president, was among Democratic presidential candidates to criticize Facebook on Thursday for refusing to change its policies. “Facebook continues to put their profits over the truth — allowing politicians like Donald Trump to spend an unthinkable amount of money on paid disinformation,” Biden tweeted. “Our democracy is worse off for their failure to confront this.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, who is also running for president, shared similar concerns. “Facebook is doubling down on a policy that hurts our democracy,” she said in a statement. “It is wrong to take money from political campaigns in exchange for disseminating blatant lies to the American people.”

Though it has consistently said it wouldn’t back down from the fact-checking policy, Facebook had discussed potential tweaks to its ad-targeting system internally in recent months, following limits imposed by rivals Google and Twitter Inc. The world’s largest social network decided against making changes to the tools, which can be very granular and precise, after “extensive outreach and consultations” with third parties, the company said.

Twitter in October said it was banning some political ads altogether and is limiting targeting for other ads that focus on social issues. “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained at the time. “Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.”

Google has prohibited political campaigns from targeting ads to users based on political affiliation.

Zuckerberg has called repeatedly for the U.S. government to step in and regulate online political ads, with the goal of creating an industry standard. Facebook did the same on Thursday. “Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies,” the social giant wrote in the blog. “We believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this the better.”

(Updates with comments from candidates in fifth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Kurt Wagner in San Francisco at kwagner71@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, Vlad Savov, Edwin Chan

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