Exclusive: Facebook cracks down on political content disguised as local news
Facebook is rolling out a new policy that will prevent U.S. news publishers with "direct, meaningful ties" to political groups from claiming the news exemption within its political ads authorization process, executives tell Axios.
Why it matters: Since the 2016 election, reporters and researchers have uncovered over 1,200 instances in which political groups use websites disguised as local news outlets to push their point of view to Americans.
- Now, Facebook is ensuring that Pages connected to those groups are held to the same standard as political entities when it comes to advertising on the platform.
- The "news exemption" means that promoted content about social issues, elections or politics from news publishers is not labeled as political within Facebook's political archive.
With the new policy, Pages on Facebook belonging to news outlets that are backed by political groups or people will still be allowed to register as a news Page and advertise on Facebook, but they will no longer be eligible for inclusion in the Facebook News tab, and they won’t have access to news messaging on the Messenger Business Platform or the WhatsApp business API.
Be smart: Key to Facebook's new policy is the way that it's differentiating a straight news outlet from a political persuasion operation. Facebook will consider an outlet to be political if it meets any of the following criteria:
- It's owned by a political entity or a political person (definitions below).
- If a political person is leading the company in an executive position, such as a CEO, chairman of its board, or a publisher or editor-in-chief.
- If the publisher shares proprietary information about any of its Facebook accounts or account passwords, API access keys, and/or data about their Facebook readers — like location, demographics, or consumption habits — directly with a Political Person or Entity as they are defined below.
- If the Page lists a political entity or a political person as its "Confirmed Page Owner" or "Confirmed Page Partner" on Facebook.
Definitions: Facebook defines a "political person" as "a candidate for elected office, a person who holds elected office, a person whose job is subject to legislative confirmation, or a person employed by and/or vested with decision-making authority by a political person or at a political entity."
- It defines a “political entity” as "an organization, company, or other group whose predominant purpose is to influence politics and elections."
- That definition would include political parties, campaigns for elected office, ballot initiative campaigns, PACs and Super PACs, and entities regulated as “Social Welfare Organizations” under Section 501(c)(4) of the IRC.
- For-profit businesses that provide political consulting or strategic communications services to other types of Political Entities will also be considered Political Entities themselves.
Between the lines: The move comes days after Google confirmed to Axios that come September, it will ban politically-motivated advertisers that disguise themselves as local news websites to promote their political point of view.
- Earlier this year, Twitter banned all political advertising. According to a Twitter spokesperson, this includes self-identified "news" sites that are funded by a PAC, SuperPAC or a 501(c)(4).
- News publishers who meet Twitter's exemption criteria may run ads that reference political content and/or prohibited advertisers under Twitter's political content policy, but they can't include advocacy for or against those topics or advertisers.
The big picture: Ahead of the 2020 election, big-money political groups have been exploiting the huge gaps in local news in America by propping up fake local news websites that are disguised as non-partisan.
- Many of these sites leverage social media advertising, especially on Facebook, to boost their content.
- The practice of setting up these types of websites has been used by political groups for years, dating back to 2014, and picking up steam during the 2018 midterms.
- As Axios has previously reported, some of these efforts are done openly with the backing of big donors, while others are done in a secretive, spammy fashion. Both tactics are manipulative, and Facebook's new policies address both.
Be smart: While many of the big local news spam networks initially uncovered by researchers belonged to conservatives, Democrats have been throwing millions at it too.
- One of the tactics they've been using to potentially skirt election rules is to establish newsrooms as "for-profits."
- Still, according to Facebook's rules, these "for-profits" would be defined as having "direct, meaningful ties" to a political entity or group due to being majority funded by a progressive nonprofit organization.
- The biggest and most sophisticated example of this type of website is Courier Newsroom, which is backed by ACRONYM, a 501(c)4 progressive nonprofit organization that invests in multiple for-profit companies in the media and technology space.
Yes, but: Some news sites may fall in a grey area. For example, they could be backed or owned by a person with ties to a partisan foundation, but they are not influenced by that person's political affiliations.
- Facebook's policy team will ultimately be responsible for making decisions around which news sites would be subject to these policies.
The bottom line: It was a deceptive and effective practice while it lasted. These new policy changes by Facebook and its tech rivals should help to reduce the distribution of these sites, or at least provide more transparency to users about who is really behind them.