WASHINGTON — The Biden presidential campaign, emboldened by a recent surge in support, is going after a new target: Facebook.
After months of privately battling the tech giant over President Trump’s free rein on its social network, the campaign will begin urging its millions of supporters to demand that Facebook strengthen its rules against misinformation and to hold politicians accountable for harmful comments.
On Thursday, the campaign will circulate a petition and an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to change the company’s hands-off approach to political speech. The petition will be sent to millions of supporters on its email and text message lists and through social media, including Facebook, imploring them to sign the letter. The campaign will also release a video this week to be shared across social media to explain the issue.
“Real changes to Facebook’s policies for their platform and how they enforce them are necessary to protect against a repeat of the role that disinformation played in the 2016 election and that continues to threaten our democracy today,” said Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign.
The move puts the Biden camp in the center of a raging debate about the role and responsibility of tech platforms. Civil rights leaders, Democratic lawmakers and many of Facebook’s own employees say that big tech companies have a responsibility to prevent false and hateful information from being shared widely.
But conservatives, including Mr. Trump, accuse social media companies that have tightened their speech policies, like Twitter and Snap, of political bias. Two weeks ago, after Twitter attached fact-checking notices to two of the president’s tweets that made false claims about voter fraud, Mr. Trump signed an executive order that would make it easier for federal regulators to argue that the companies are suppressing free speech.
The Biden team’s offensive also intensifies pressure on Facebook, which faced a public backlash last week after it did nothing about inflammatory posts by Mr. Trump. Employees resigned, hundreds participated in a virtual walkout, advertisers canceled their accounts, and nonprofits in Washington ceased sponsorships from the company.
The criticism poses one of most serious challenges to the leadership of Mr. Zuckerberg since he helped start the company 15 years ago. But faced with opposition in the past, the 36-year-old’s instinct has been to dig in his heels. Mr. Zuckerberg feels strongly that his platform should be neutral and believes the debate on speech is about preserving a diversity of ideas, even if those ideas are false or harmful.
“We live in a democracy, where the elected officials decide the rules around campaigns,” Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook, said on Thursday. “Two weeks ago the president of the United States issued an executive order directing federal agencies to prevent social media sites from engaging in activities like fact-checking political statements.
“This week, the Democratic candidate for president started a petition calling on us to do the exact opposite. Just as they have done with broadcast networks — where the U.S. government prohibits rejecting politicians’ campaign ads — the people’s elected representatives should set the rules, and we will follow them. There is an election coming in November and we will protect political speech, even when we strongly disagree with it.”
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Joe Biden has been buoyed in recent weeks by new financial and online support. His campaign has had a surge in fund-raising, and it has collected 1.2 million more email signatures in the past seven days. Numerous political polls have shown him gaining ground on Mr. Trump.
Even though he plans to attack Facebook, Mr. Biden is increasingly turning to the site to reach voters with ads. In recent days, he spent $5 million in advertising on Facebook, surging past political ad spending by Mr. Trump, who has dominated Facebook throughout the campaign season.
“Biden is doing the right thing by pushing the platform to be more ethical and by not walking away from it, which is not realistic,” said Erik Smith, a former Democratic strategist and co-founder of Seven Letter, a crisis communications firm. “But he’s running a race against an opponent who has a 10-mile start on Facebook.”
The open letter being sent on Thursday will say that “Trump and his allies have used Facebook to spread fear and misleading information about voting, attempting to compromise the means of holding power to account: our voices and our ballot boxes.”
It calls on the company to take several steps to limit misinformation and hateful language on the site, including making clear rules “that prohibit threatening behavior and lies about how to participate in the election.”
The video criticizing Facebook will be narrated by Mr. Biden’s deputy campaign director, Kate Bedingfield. It will warn that Facebook’s inaction toward Mr. Trump threatens the election and puts Americans in harm’s way. The goal is to publicly pressure Facebook’s leadership to restrict misinformation by politicians and to fact-check political ads ahead of the November election.
The tensions between the Biden campaign and Facebook began last October, in the heat of Mr. Trump’s impeachment battle. The Trump campaign released ads on Facebook that falsely claimed that Mr. Biden offered to bribe Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into his son. The claims in the video ads were not substantiated, and television networks, including CNN, declined to run the ads.
The campaign complained to Facebook and demanded that the videos, which were viewed and shared millions of times, be removed. But the company said the videos didn’t clearly violate its policies against misinformation and that comments by politicians and their campaigns, even if false, were newsworthy and important for public discourse.
Mr. Zuckerberg later that month defended that decision in a speech at Georgetown University, arguing that he believed political speech did not need to be fact-checked or moderated by the company because comments by political figures were deeply scrutinized by the public.
In January, in an interview with The New York Times’s editorial board, Mr. Biden criticized Mr. Zuckerberg personally.
“I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan,” Mr. Biden said. “I think he’s a real problem.”
Mr. Biden also called for the end of the legal shield Mr. Trump targeted recently in his executive order. The vice president said Facebook’s inaction demonstrated the need to revoke the law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields them from most liability for the content they host.
Behind the scenes, the campaign had continued to negotiate with top Facebook executives and lobbyists, according to letters obtained by The Times. In April, senior campaign officials wrote Brian Rice, the top Democratic lobbyist for Facebook, with proposals to improve fact-checking ahead of the election. The campaign called for Facebook to fact check new political ads two weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 election, and to restrict campaigns and candidates from sharing content already deemed false by third-party fact checkers.
On May 26, the campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, wrote a letter to Mr. Zuckerberg to again push for changes to political speech policies and noted that often content by super PACs is checked only days after it has been posted and gone viral, even though it contains misinformation. Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t respond, though Facebook did.
The campaign decided to take its fight public after Mr. Trump’s posts in recent days. He falsely claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to voter fraud. And his warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” startled people on the campaign.
“You seem to carve out an exception for Donald Trump that permits him to abuse your platform because he is the president,” Ms. Dillon wrote in a separate letter on June 5 to Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global policy and communications. “But it is surely clear that precisely because Donald Trump is the president, these abuses take on major significance.”
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