Facebook has tried hard not to fact-check the political content on its platform but a multimillion dollar pro-Trump political action committee’s troubles with the truth were so egregious, the social media company temporarily suspended their account on Thursday.
The company took action against the account for the Committee to Defend the President, a political action committee which began in 2013 as an anti-Hillary Clinton group but which has since changed its focus to pro-Trump activism.
“As a result of the Committee to Defend the President's repeated sharing of content determined by third-party fact-checkers to be false, they will not be permitted to advertise for a period of time," Facebook said in a statement.
The committee has spent roughly $325,000 on ads supporting President Trump and conservative causes between May 2018 and August 2020, according to Facebook’s ad database. Its founders have spent nearly $10 million in support of President Trump and his reelection in 2020 according to campaign finance records.
Facebook has long struggled to avoid taking responsibility for moderating the content posted on its platform by public officials and politicians as it did on Thursday.
“I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview on CNBC back in May. “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say,” he said, in a riff on comments given during a Fox News interview the day before.
But that laissez-faire approach appears to be buckling under the combined weight of an impending election, a lethal coronavirus pandemic, and increasingly flagrant violations of Facebook’s policies.
Facebook’s suspension of the Committee to Defend the President marks the second time in the past week that the social media company has had to walk back its hands-off approach to political content that is either demonstrably false or in violation of Facebook’s terms of service.
On Wednesday, Facebook removed one of President Trump’s Facebook posts which featured a clip of him on Fox News telling viewers that children are “almost immune” to the coronavirus and should go back to school in the fall.
Facebook issued a statement which said that the “video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19, which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation.”
The Committee to Defend the President’s ads have attracted scorn by independent fact-checkers, who have called out a number of them for making provably false claims.
One recent ad run by the Committee and removed by Facebook accused former Vice President Biden of being a racist for “repeat[ing] the n-word twice on camera.” Independent fact-checking groups like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact declared the ad’s claims false and noted that the quote in question came not from Biden directly but from a memo he quoted. During a 1985 hearing, then Senator Biden quoted a racist memo authored by a Louisiana official who sought to oppose a redistricting plan in order to criticize the nomination of a Reagan administration official who had failed to object to it.
Another of the group’s recent ads featured the voice of former President Barack Obama decrying “plantation politics,” portrayed as an attack on Biden. The ad prompted a cease and desist letter from Obama’s representatives, who called the ad “despicable” and “disinformation.”
The group has also recently run highly inflammatory ads on its platform, including one spot that appealed to Latino voters with backhanded shots at African-Americans. “Latino Americans love our country. But that’s not good enough for Joe Biden,” declares the ad, which features images of prominent Democrats including Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Biden has “promised his party a Black vice president, not a Latino,” the ad, which ran in English and Spanish, continues, “even though Latinos make up one sixth of the United States population and contribute twice as much to the economy as Black Americans.”
“Does Joe Biden have dementia?” another recent CDP ad said. “In a world losing its mind, we don’t need a president who’s already lost his.”