WASHINGTON — Fact checkers were unanimous in their assessments when President Trump began claiming in June that Democrat Joe Biden wanted to ‘‘defund’’ police forces. Politifact called the allegations ‘‘false,’’ as did CheckYourFact. The Associated Press detailed ‘‘distortions’’ in Trump’s claims. FactCheck.org called an ad airing them ‘‘deceptive.’’ Another site, The Dispatch, said there is ‘‘nothing currently to support’’ Trump’s claims.
But these judgments, made by five fact-checking organizations that are part of Facebook’s independent network for policing falsehoods on the platform, were not shared with Facebook’s users. That’s because the company specifically exempts politicians from its rules against deception. Ads containing the falsehoods continue to run freely on the platform, without any kind of warning or label.
Enabled by Facebook’s rules, Trump’s reelection campaign has shown versions of the false claim on Facebook at least 22.5 million times, in more than 1,400 ads costing between $350,000 and $553,000, a Washington Post analysis found based on data from Facebook’s Ad Library. The ads, bought by the campaign directly or in a partnership with the Republican National Committee, were targeted at Facebook users mainly in swing states such as Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
They weren’t the only times Trump’s campaign has taken advantage of Facebook’s policy allowing politicians to lie with impunity, something the company does not tolerate from non-political advertisers. Fact-checking organizations that partner with Facebook also have ruled that Trump ads have made untrue claims about Biden’s positions on school choice and health care for immigrants, as well as on the effectiveness of Trump’s response to the coronavirus, yet ads including these claims have been allowed to stay on the platform and carry no warning label, The Post’s review found.
Biden’s campaign has not taken similar advantage of Facebook’s leniency about political claims. Fact checkers working with Facebook have found far fewer misleading statements from him or his campaign, a review of their work since May found. Most concerned misstatements made in the candidate’s public remarks, typically in interviews or campaign events, such as when he said in June that COVID-19 had killed 120 million Americans when the correct number was 120,000. No fact checker from Facebook’s network has recently taken issue with a Biden campaign ad that appeared on Facebook.
When Facebook’s fact checkers deem non-political ads false, the company removes them from its platform, though they remain in the publicly available Ad Library for research purposes. In the case of the Trump ads, the only public presentation of the factcheckers’ conclusions has been on their own websites — where the organizations routinely run all their assessments.
‘‘It’s crazy,’’ said Claire Wardle, US director of First Draft, an organization dedicated to fighting misinformation that has a partnership with Facebook. ‘‘Because Facebook has decided not to actively fact-check political ads, you have this perverse situation where these fact-checks of problematic ads sit on the fact-checking websites, but there is no mechanism for their work to impact Facebook or their users.’’
Facebook created its fact-checking program in December 2016 as a key part of its response to the rampant misinformation spread on its platform during the presidential campaign that concluded with Trump’s victory.
The company signed up some of the biggest names in fact-checking, such as Politifact and FactCheck.org, which long considered curbing deception by politicians as central to their institutional missions.
But Facebook excluded from its fact-checking program statements by politicians, a policy formalized last year in an announcement denounced by many Democrats, civil rights groups, and independent disinformation researchers. They complained that Facebook was removing one of the few checks on deceptions by Trump as the 2020 vote loomed.
Facebook has defended its position by saying that political speech should be as unfettered as possible and noting that traditional forms of political advertising — on radio, television and in mass mailings — are not required to be free of falsehoods. Some of the ads in The Post’s analysis also appeared on television outlets, which are not required to police untruths in the ads they show but do sometimes refuse to run ones they deem objectionable.
‘‘Political speech is some of the most scrutinized content on our platform, which ensures that people are held accountable for their words,’’ said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone. ‘‘We’ve built ads transparency mechanisms that simply don’t exist for political ads on TV and radio or for paid political mail, enabling anyone to see and judge the claims politicians make.’’
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said, ‘‘We stand by our ads and note that most fact checks are arbitrary and usually an extension of the liberal-leaning editorial bias of the organization doing the checking.’’
Three of the organizations that found fault with Trump’s claims that Biden wanted to ‘‘defund’’ police forces are nonpartisan. A fourth, CheckYourFacts, is part of a conservative site, the Daily Caller, co-founded in 2010 by a former Bush administration official and Tucker Carlson, now a Fox News commentator. A fifth, The Dispatch, says on its website that it’s ‘‘informed by conservative principles.’’
In writing about a Trump tweet — dated June 7 and saying, ‘‘Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to ‘‘DEFUND THE POLICE’’ — the Daily Caller’s CheckYourFact wrote, ‘‘Verdict: False.’’
Concern about falsehoods in Facebook advertising stems from the rampant lies, distortions, and disinformation that flooded the platform in 2016, including by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which used rubles to buy ads in which the operatives pretended to be American political activists. US intelligence officials later determined that Russia’s goal was to divide Americans along racial, social, religious, and other political fault lines, and to help elect Trump.
But Trump’s routine use of false and misleading claims during his presidency, along with his heavy and sophisticated use of social media, has fueled concern that unchecked disinformation on would be a problem during the 2020 election season.