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Troll Watch: Elizabeth Warren's Facebook Ad


Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have not endorsed President Trump for reelection. So why is Elizabeth Warren spreading that falsehood in a new ad running on Facebook? She says she did it to protest the social network's political advertising policies, and she accuses Facebook of profiting from spreading lies. We're going to look at this deliberate ploy by Warren's campaign in our regular segment called Troll Watch.


PFEIFFER: NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us from San Francisco. Hi, Shannon.


PFEIFFER: So if anyone's seen this ad, you realize, if you read beyond the headline, that it's not true. But if you only read the headline, you might think it's true. So describe this ad for us.

BOND: Sure. It shows a picture of President Trump shaking hands with Mark Zuckerberg in the Oval Office. And it says breaking news - Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for reelection. You're probably shocked. And you might be thinking - how could this possibly be true? And then the ad goes on to say, well, it's not. Sorry.

So we should reiterate here. Facebook and Zuckerberg have not endorsed the president or any other candidate. But the Warren campaign - they started running this ad on Thursday. It's already been shown to a lot of people all over the country.

PFEIFFER: And Facebook actually approved the ad, you know. As you said, it's been up for a few days, even though it's gotten a lot of publicity. So this didn't just accidentally slip through some automated approval system. Now, Warren says that proves her point, although I've seen some comments on Facebook saying it's not really a lie, it's just a parody, and Facebook is fine with parodies. But explain to us. Why is she running this ad?

BOND: Yeah, I mean, Elizabeth Warren has been a relentless critic of Facebook. And she says she's made an ad that's deliberately false to highlight this fact that Facebook allows political candidates to essentially lie in their ads. So this actually came up because of another misleading political ad. The Trump campaign was running this ad across social media and on TV, making false claims about Joe Biden. And the Biden campaign complained, but Facebook didn't take it down. It says it doesn't fact-check political speech as a matter of course. That's the problem that Warren is raising. She says by taking money for these kinds of ads, Facebook is choosing profits over, quote, "protecting democracy."

PFEIFFER: When I was getting ready to talk to you, I was reading about Facebook's policy on when it will or won't reject ads or downplay ads. And it's confusing, and it's controversial. What are the rules governing this area?

BOND: Yeah, it is confusing. So what Facebook says is, we aren't actually doing anything different than what broadcast television does. There's actually an FCC rule that says broadcast stations have to air political ads. They can't block them based on what they say. The difference is for cable networks, and people might have seen that CNN refused to air the Trump ad. It sets its own policies for what it airs. Facebook has that discretion, but they're saying they consider themselves to be like the broadcast network. And so they're not going to censor political ads.

PFEIFFER: It seems like Facebook is framing this as a free speech issue. But how much of this is driven by ad revenue? And is Facebook possibly looking the other way because advertising is so lucrative?

BOND: I mean, that's a good question. Now, Facebook says political ads are actually just a drop in the bucket for them. I mean, that company sold $55 billion worth of ads last year, and political ads are just a single digit percentage of their total. But it's also clearly reluctant to drop political advertising, altogether. So I think this is really about Facebook feeling it can't win if it starts policing political speech.

PFEIFFER: The presidential election is, obviously, more than a year away. How do you see this playing out over the coming year and beyond?

BOND: Well, candidates are spending more money online. We know this. And Facebook is, you know, particularly important for them as a place to advertise. You can reach so many people there. Facebook's made very clear, though, it's not going to tell politicians what they can or can't say. And it's going to keep selling these ads. So I think there's clearly a continued risk that it'll be, once again, a place where misinformation is spreading.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Shannon, thank you.

BOND: Thanks.

PFEIFFER: And we want to note that Facebook is among NPR's recent financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.