An American website that pumped out uncorroborated articles about Canadian politics during the federal election campaign was allowed to promote its content via paid ads on Facebook despite the fact that its articles have been repeatedly deemed false by news organizations, including by one of Facebook's own fact-checking partners.
This kind of contradiction — possible because political ads aren’t subject to the same fact-checking as nonpolitical ads — was singled out by Facebook employees in a scathing letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg made public this week.
“Misinformation shared by political advertisers has an outsized detrimental impact on our community,” stated the letter, signed by more than 250 employees, according to a report in the New York Times. “Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for.”
Under heavy criticism since 2016, Facebook has spent years investing in fact-checking to combat viral falsehoods. But that work risks being “undone” by a policy that allows users to pay to promote the very false claims Facebook claims to be combatting, the letter says.
“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing,” the letter states. “Misinformation affects us all .. [It] has the potential to increase distrust in our platform by allowing similar paid and organic content to sit side-by-side … It communicates that we are OK profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in or seeking positions of power.”
In the final week before the Oct. 21 election, the Buffalo Chronicle paid to promote a story about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s alleged activities during undergraduate university, citing a single anonymous source. The week before, it placed an ad for its debunked story that claimed Trudeau had paid more than $2 million to suppress a report about sexual misconduct.
That story, and another alleging Trudeau was in settlement talks with the person making the allegation, was debunked by the Star, Snopes, and the Agence France-Presse, which was contracted by Facebook to fact-check political stories during the Canadian election campaign. Other Chronicle stories have also been deemed false by news outlets.
The Buffalo Chronicle’s publisher, Matthew Ricchiazzi, said he has never been contacted by Facebook regarding his debunked reports.
“We report in good faith and are confident in all of our reporting to date,” he said in an email.
Ricchiazzi explained that he promoted his Canadian political content in the US and not in Canada because Facebook “no longer allows promoting political content outside of a single national jurisdiction.”
“[Facebook] has been adding layers and layers of new restrictions on distributing any content that can even remotely be described as political, since earlier this year,” he said. Ricchiazzi said Facebook has taken action against the Buffalo Chronicle as a result of its content about Canadian politics, including reducing the site’s organic reach, and disabling livestreaming and other features on its page.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company takes action against a page if it repeatedly shares or publishes false content. They declined to comment on the record except to say that the Buffalo Chronicle is still eligible to run ads from its page.
Ricchiazzi, meanwhile, doesn’t hesitate to state that his goal was to influence the outcome of the election in another country.
“If we were not being discriminated against for our political views, Justin Trudeau would no longer be Prime Minister,” he said.