Three senators and four attorneys general demanded Facebook pause or permanently halt the advertisement of military goods and tactical gear following last week’s insurrection at the US Capitol.
Two letters — one signed by senators from Illinois, Connecticut, and Ohio, and the other from the attorneys general of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, and Washington, DC — cited Facebook’s role in allowing extremists to organize the Capitol riot and asked its leaders reexamine how they were profiting from national turmoil. The letters follow a BuzzFeed News report that Facebook was showing ads for body armor, gun targets, and other weapon accessories in the News Feeds of people who had engaged with content about the attempted coup or followed extremist and far-right organizations on the platform.
“Facebook must hold itself accountable for how domestic enemies of the United States have used the company’s products and platform to further their own illicit aims,” wrote Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Richard Blumenthal, and Sherrod Brown. “Whether through negligence or with full knowledge, Facebook is placing profit ahead of our Nation’s democracy.”
Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois declined to comment.
On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News reported Facebook employees had raised concerns internally about the ads. After the story, employees continued to flag potentially problematic ads in posts to the company’s internal message board viewed by BuzzFeed News.
“I’m seeing ads for tactical armor in my news feed,” one employee wrote on Thursday, sharing a screenshot of the advertisement. “When I looked at why I’m seeing these for the first time EVER it says the ads are targeting males in the USA. This is concerning to me, as I have never had any interest in this or anything like it.”
Those ads may be shown to people who are being radicalized on the social network. Research from the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit industry watchdog group, showed that a Facebook account set up by the organization to follow pages belonging to right-wing extremists and militant organizations was regularly shown ads for military gear in between posts casting doubt on the presidential election and praising the assault on the US Capitol.
TTP’s Facebook account, which mimics the activity of a right-wing extremist middle-aged man, continued to see body armor ads as of Friday afternoon.
"Facebook has spent years facilitating fringe voices who use the platform to organize and amplify calls for violence,” TTP Director Katie Paul said in a previous statement. “As if that weren't enough, Facebook's advertising microtargeting is directing domestic extremists toward weapons accessories and armor that can make their militarized efforts more effective, all while Facebook profits."
While the social network has policies preventing the sale or advertisement of firearms, ads for accessories like targets and attachable gun flashlights as well as body armor and other tactical gear are allowed.
The two letters diverged in their requests to Facebook. The senators’ note to CEO Mark Zuckerberg asked the company to “immediately develop and execute a Facebook policy permanently prohibiting advertisements of products that a reasonable observer would interpret as primarily designed for use in lethal tactical operations and armed combat.” Their letter also asked that the company hire an independent law firm to investigate what role it had played in providing a platform for the planning of the Capitol attack, as well as appoint a member to the board of directors who has “expertise in matters of domestic terrorism.”
The letter from the attorneys general to Will Castleberry, a vice president on Facebook’s policy team, asked that the company put a moratorium on ads for weapon accessories and body armor “until January 22, 2021, or until such time as the heightened threat of extremist violence subsides.”
The four attorneys general wrote, “Halting this advertising while the nation prepares to respond to [an unprecedented] domestic threat is a simple action that Facebook can take to support this response and to help prevent another emergency like the one the country experienced on January 6.”
The letters come as Facebook faces landmark antitrust lawsuits from federal and state governments. The attorneys general who wrote the letter are part of a coalition of regulators from the Federal Trade Commission and 48 states and territories that have sued the company for maintaining an illegal monopoly and stifling competition.
Both documents were critical of a statement from Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, who said in an interview with Reuters on Monday that the attempted coup was “largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate.” Despite the company’s efforts, Facebook has been a cauldron for hate and conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.
“The public comments of your COO are even more perplexing in light of a public report that your own employees internally flagged advertisements featuring semi-automatic rifles and selling body armor and other equipment as irresponsible and dangerous,” the senators wrote.
“We are deeply disappointed that based on the existing facts and circumstances, we have little confidence in your company or your corporate leadership,” they added.
Correction: The letter from three US lawmakers to Facebook was signed by senators from Illinois, Ohio, and Connecticut. An earlier version of this story misidentified which states the senators represent.