Beginning today, Facebook users in the U.S. will have the option to “turn off” all political advertising on the platform. The company made the controversial decision not to fact-check or otherwise moderate political ads last year, but the new feature will give users more control over what they see — at least for users who decide to flip the new setting to “off.”
Facebook made the announcement Tuesday in a blog post and an op-ed from Mark Zuckerberg. The post noted that the company originally announced the new option in January but would now add it to the platform as it prepares for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The option will appear immediately for some U.S. users, rolling out more broadly in the next few weeks. The option to disable political ads will apply to political, electoral and social issue ads from candidates, Super PACs and other groups. The option will pop up for users directly on any political ad across Facebook and Instagram or through either platform’s ad settings.
“By giving people a voice, registering and turning out voters, and preventing interference, I believe Facebook is supporting and strengthening our democracy in 2020 and beyond,” Zuckerberg wrote in USA Today. “And for those of you who’ve already made up your minds and just want the election to be over, we hear you — so we’re also introducing the ability to turn off seeing political ads. We’ll still remind you to vote.”
Facebook may have previously announced its intention to allow users to see fewer political ads, but the language in its blog post from the beginning of this year said only that it would add a setting to let people see “fewer” political ads — not turn them off altogether as the company is announcing now. The January post also defended the company’s decision not to fact-check political ads or limit its extensive ad targeting tools.
In the instructional video the company provided, the setting offers to show users “fewer ads about this topic” rather than disable them entirely. We’ve asked Facebook to explain the discrepancy.
Update: Facebook clarified that the option to turn off all political ads was the plan from the beginning, but it’s sticking with the wording around seeing “fewer” of them in case some ads about politics or social issues slip through its filter.
Last week, presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden called on the company to fact-check its political advertising in the two weeks running up to the U.S. election. While Facebook’s added option is a small change, it’s still a rare concession for critics of its stubbornly laissez-faire view of political ads on its platform.
Facebook plans to make the new setting available beyond the U.S. “in countries where we have enforcement on ads about social issues, elections and politics,” starting in the fall. The company is also implementing two ad transparency changes, making sure “Paid for by” disclaimers on political ads follow them after they’ve been shared and allowing anyone who uses the company’s Ad Library to track ad spending for Congressional races. Previously this was only available for U.S. presidential campaigns.
Along with the changes to how it handles political ads, Facebook also announced a Voting Information Center, a central hub that will provide information to U.S. voters on how to register to vote, request a mail-in or absentee ballot, any voting ID requirements and when and where to vote. The info center will also collect local alerts from election officials that might note adjustments to voting methods in light of COVID-19. The new voting info hub will be modeled after the coronavirus information center that Facebook launched in March.
According to the blog post, the information collected in the new U.S. voting hub will evolve as voters “move into different phases of the election,” like registration cutoffs, vote-by-mail ballot request deadlines, early voting periods and election day itself.
Facebook calls the effort “another line of defense” against election interference, clearly looking to avoid a repeat of its role in amplifying disinformation during the 2016 presidential election — a deeply consequential failure the company continues to grapple with a full four years later.