Facebook initially said it would permit the ads, ruling that they were clearly not a part of the U.S. Census, according to Popular Information, a politically themed online newsletter that first reported on the ads and the company’s refusal to remove them. Facebook announced its policy against misleading references to the census in December.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) sharply criticized Facebook’s decision in a news conference Thursday. “I am particularly annoyed today at the actions of Facebook. Facebook has something that is an official document of Donald Trump as saying, ‘Fill this out, this is a Census form’ – it is not. It is an absolute lie, a lie that is consistent with the misrepresentation policy of Facebook. But now they are messing with who we are as Americans,” Pelosi said, according to a transcript on her website.
Facebook reversed its position hours later, saying that the ads indeed violated its policy against “misrepresentation of the dates, locations, times and methods for census participation.”
Spokesman Andy Stone said, “There are policies in place to prevent confusion around the official U.S. Census, and this is an example of those being enforced.”
Asked about Facebook’s turnaround in its ruling about the Trump census ads, Stone said, “We conducted a further review.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh declined to comment about the ads or Facebook’s decision.
Facebook has struggled with how to draw the line against misinformation that comes from political figures such as Trump. The company announced in September that it was exempting claims by politicians from its fact-checking program, one of the company’s key reforms after the 2016 election, when false claims ran rampant on the platform.
That decision sparked outrage from Democrats, who feared Trump’s well-chronicled use of exaggerations and falsehoods to further his political goals. It also enraged civil rights activists, who warned that falsehoods often are used to suppress voter turnout and undermine census counts that are critical to allocating federal financial resources.
Facebook adopted its policy against misleading census claims after consulting with civil rights groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Its president, Vanita Gupta, sharply criticized Facebook’s initial decision to allow the Trump ads and praised its later reversal.
“While we’re gratified that Facebook shut down Trump’s attempt to sow confusion about how and when to participate in the 2020 Census, it’s disturbing that the ads weren’t immediately removed” Gupta said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
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