Sen. Mark Warner Has Questions for Facebook Over Its Political Ads Policies

A letter to Mark Zuckerberg referenced misinformation being permitted

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) - Credit by Mark Warner
Headshot of David Cohen

A politician who has clashed with Facebook and other tech companies in the past was highly critical of the social network’s policy of allowing political ads that contain misinformation.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) sent a letter (embedded below) to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week, detailing his concerns.

Warner and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) cosponsored the Dashboard Act (Designing Accounting Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight And Regulations on Data Act) in June, aimed at requiring internet companies with more than 100 million monthly active users to disclose the monetary value of their user data.

He sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission last December expressing concerns over the agency’s slow response to investigating digital ad fraud and noting that the market is “largely dominated” by Google.

Warner spoke with Adweek last September about his thoughts on the roles played by Facebook, Twitter and Google during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Warner introduced the Honest Ads Act in October 2017, co-sponsored by late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to make political ads on platforms such as Facebook and Google transparent like those on TV and radio stations.

In his letter to Zuckerberg, Warner mentioned ads run by President Donald Trump that contained false allegations against presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, blaming Trump for undermining political discourse norms of decency and probity.

He wrote, “But it is also true that these norms have been undermined at least in part because of the nature, architecture, policies and operation of platforms like Facebook. The public nature of broadcast television, radio, print, cable and satellite ensured a level of accountability for traditional political advertisements. In addition to being broadly accessible to the electorate, these communications are accessible to the press, fact-checkers and political opponents through media monitoring services that track broadcast content across television and radio markets. As a result, strong disincentives exist for a candidate to disseminate materially false, inflammatory or contradictory messages to the public.”

He continued, “By contrast, social media platforms tout their ability to target portions of the electorate with direct, ephemeral advertisements—often on the basis of private information the platform has on individual users, facilitating political advertisements that are contradictory, racially or socially inflammatory or materially false, without the same constraints as more traditional communications mediums, and without affording opposing candidates an equal opportunity to respond directly in front of the same targeted audience.”

Specific questions for Zuckerberg that Warner requested answers to within the next two weeks were:

  • Under this policy, how is Facebook defining “politician?” What steps have you taken to prevent abuse of this definition?
  • Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, has noted that this policy has exceptions for speech that “can lead to real-world violence and harm” or “endangers people.” How is Facebook defining these terms?
  • Unlike online intermediaries like Facebook, traditional media outlets can be sued for defamation for the advertisements they run. Because of this, traditional media outlets have generally adopted norms of refusing to run advertisements with clear falsehoods, and of taking down ads where an opposing campaign or fact-checking organization has shown an ad to be false. Would a regulatory regime establishing greater parity in liability between Facebook and traditional media outlets serve to simplify Facebook’s policies in this sphere?
  • Will you commit to provide ad targeting information, as required under the Honest Ads Act, to better allow opposing campaigns to “correct the record” in responding to potentially misleading ads?

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.