Facebook and Twitter update their policies on political speech and election plans

Last week I posted a long-read about Facebook and the company’s struggle to explain its position on free speech. I suggested that there was quite a lot more that the platform could do to boost confidence in its work around elections.

No sooner had I posted this than there were a number of developments which mean an update is required.

You can read the original post, which I think is still accurate, here.


Facebook plans for the 2020 election

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has outlined what the company is planning to do for the 2020 US Presidential election. His statement comes after the platform revealed that they had taken action against a number of accounts seeking to disrupt the election originating in Iran and Russia.

Zuckerberg has admitted that the company was caught on the back foot in 2016 and needs to do more this time around. He says they will do more to secure the accounts of elected politicians, clearly label posts coming from state media organisations and more clearly label posts deemed false by fact-checkers. They also say they will ban political ads aimed at suppressing turnout. Apparently this will also apply to ads originating from politicians – a provision most likely to hit opposition parties boycotting elections.

Whilst these are steps forward, once again Facebook seems to be concentrating its efforts on the US elections.


Facebook plans for the next UK election

At the same time as his boss was speaking, Facebook’s VP of Policy Solutions, Richard Allan, was setting out what the company plans to do for the next UK election in a column in the Daily Telegraph.

Allan reiterates the company policy of employing third-party fact checkers (in the UK it is Fullfact),  labelling inaccurate posts as such and demoting them. He also repeats the policy of having clear badging on political adverts and keeping them in a political advert library for seven years. What is new is that adverts about social issues like immigration and health will also be treated in the same way.

The company is concerned about hate speech aimed at MPs and candidates and says they will do more to tackle this. They have created a dedicated reporting channel for MPs which they plan to extend to all candidates when an election is called. I think there is a bit of a loophole here as most candidates are already very active and many also receive abuse. If Facebook is honest when it says it wants to tackle this then a more convenient reporting channel should be open to a much wider user base straight away. Also when the election is called a dedicated UK operations centre will be opened – although again, this could be done earlier to help address the harm already being done.

Allan concludes by reiterating the platform’s free speech policy and says they will not be fact-checking politicians. However he goes further than the company has done before by identifying that the UK’s election laws are not consistent with modern campaigning. 

“What constitutes a political ad? Should all online political advertising be recorded in a public archive and should that extend to traditional platforms like billboards, direct mail and newspapers? Should anyone spending over a certain amount on political ads have to declare who their main funders are? Who, if anybody, should decide what politicians can and can’t say in their adverts? These are all questions that can only be properly decided by Parliament and regulators.” 

I would suggest that, although he is quite right that the law is lagging behind modern technology, many of these issues have clearly been decided by the courts or Electoral Commission or by common practice among the political parties. Parliament should be acting, but so too should social media companies such as Facebook.

(It’s worth remembering, of course, that Richard Allan was Nick Clegg’s predecessor as MP for Sheffield Hallam and is a member of the House of Lords).


Facebook hires election observer

A final Facebook development is that the company has hired Richard Lappin to be Public Policy Manager, Content (Elections). Richard was, until recently, the Deputy Head of Elections at OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. That is the organisation that conducts election observation missions within the OSCE network of 57 member countries.

This is a very positive development. Not only was Richard very good at his job, it shows that Facebook is serious about wanting to reach out to election observers to help them better regulate the content on their platform during elections around the world.


Twitter copies Facebook

I’m sure they came up with their new policy entirely by themselves, but reading Twitter’s newly declared statement on the treatment of ‘world leaders’, you would think they had been reading over the shoulder of Facebook.

They have stated:

“Everything we do starts with an understanding of our purpose and of the service we provide: a place where people can participate in public conversation and get informed about the world around them.

We assess reported Tweets from world leaders against the Twitter Rules, which are designed to ensure people can participate in the public conversation freely and safely.

We focus on the language of reported Tweets and do not attempt to determine all potential interpretations of the content or its intent.

Presently, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules.

However, if a Tweet from a world leader does violate the Twitter Rules but there is a clear public interest value to keeping the Tweet on the service, we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content.”


OXTEC recommendations for UK electoral reform

The Oxford Technology and Elections Commission has reported and made a series of recommendations for actions the UK should be taking to reflect the impact that online campaigning, including social media, has on elections in the UK.

The Commission’s recommendations are divided into those aimed at civil society, parties, the government and platforms themselves.

These range from an industry implementation of a library system similar to that developed by Facebook, improved due diligence and imprinting by the parties and verification of social media accounts by the Electoral Commission. Crucially they also recommend that existing financial reporting rules need to be extended to cover all online campaigning. However they do not explicitly require that those who place online adverts declare the origin of the money they spend which I think is a significant shortcoming.

Overall this is a major contribution to the debate. What needs to happen now is for the government to commit to bring forward legislation to update UK electoral law in this and a number of other areas. Given that we are likely to have a general election in the near future, it seems unlikely that many of the OXTEC proposals will be in place for the next poll. But there are things that could (and need to) be done immediately and a statement from the government that they intend to legislate in this area would be a good start.