Meta ad policy allowing 2020 election denial followed warning of political backlash, sources say

(NEW YORK) — When Meta overhauled its policy toward election-denial claims in political advertising last year, many Republican midterm election candidates nationwide were espousing false claims of a stolen election in 2020.

At the time, some employees warned internally of potential harm to Meta’s standing with Republican elected officials and candidates if the company chose to ban political ads that denied the results of previous elections, including the 2020 contest, former Meta employees who were working at the company when these discussions took place, told ABC News.

Members of the company’s public policy team tasked with lobbying federal lawmakers indicated that an ad policy forbidding denial of previous elections could also elicit pushback from Democrats, noting for instance, that they could take issue with an ad policy barring claims that a prior election had been rigged by gerrymandering, a person familiar with the matter said.

Political ads on Meta-owned platforms denying the results of previous elections in the U.S., however, overwhelmingly came from rightwing politicians, groups and other accounts, people familiar with the matter said.

Policy development at Meta routinely includes discussion of a potential impact on the perception of the company in Washington, D.C., but deliberations in this case sparked concern among employees that such considerations had outweighed substantive issues, the people said.

Ultimately, the company decided in the summer of 2022 that political advertisements featuring false claims of a rigged election in 2020 would be permitted on Instagram and Facebook, according to a Meta content policy and people familiar with the matter.

Meta instituted a policy allowing political advertisers to say past elections were fraudulently conducted but prohibiting ads that question the validity of future or ongoing elections, the policy says. The rules apply to elections in the U.S., Brazil, Israel and Italy.

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, Meta referred to information about the policy that it had previously shared with ABC News.

Since prior elections have been completed, the policy focuses on ongoing or future elections that can still be affected by ads, Meta previously told ABC News. Further, the company continues to enforce its Community Standards and bar other types of ads that may contain incorrect information about elections, Meta added.

To be sure, members of the public policy team also cautioned of possible political pushback in response to the policy that was ultimately adopted, the person said, noting that the public policy team typically voiced such concerns for each proposed policy option since it was their job to give insight into the political risks that could arise.

The Wall Street Journal first reported details of the policy change, which went into effect last year but had not drawn significant attention until last month.

Meta announced in November additional restrictions on ads, including a blackout period for political ads in the final week of the 2024 election.

Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta and a top decision-maker on the election-denial ad policy, viewed the prevalence of 2020 election denial among Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, as a political reality beyond the purview of ad restrictions at Meta, a person who says they heard him share his views at the time, told ABC News.

Clegg wanted to responsibly police content without interfering with a political position that played a sizable role in the campaign at the time, the person said, adding that Clegg believed denial of the 2020 election should be adjudicated by a democratically accountable institution rather than a private entity.

Clegg also weighed free-speech concerns tied to the election-denial ad policy, believing that Meta should ban ads claiming ongoing and future elections were rigged because such content posed a risk of immediate harm to voters who could in turn forgo participation in an election or lose faith in its results, the source told ABC News.

Political ads challenging the legitimacy of previous elections did not threaten direct harm because the elections had been completed, Clegg thought, and he supported putting the ads beyond Meta’s role as an arbiter of paid content, the source added.

Speaking at a Semafor event in September 2022, Clegg voiced similar general views on content moderation.

“Our lodestar is that we seek to act not when we think something is true or not true, or whether we like it or don’t like it,” Clegg said. “That’s not our role — that shouldn’t be the role of the private sector.”

“But there’s an exception to this if we think there is content on our platform or there are people seeking to propagate content on our platform which will lead to real-world harm,” Clegg added.

Clegg has not responded to ABC News’ request for comment.

The notion that political ads denying the 2020 election did not pose immediate harm drew concern from some employees who believed the claim had already contributed to political violence, including their belief that the spread of such misinformation had helped fuel the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, people said.

Some employees also thought that the denial of past elections could damage faith in the results of ongoing or future ones, the people added.

The company’s willingness to accept payment for putting 2020 election-denial content on its platforms also caused unrest among some employees, people said.

The company announced its approach to the 2022 midterms last August, Meta said, citing a blog post that included the following statement: “We will reject ads encouraging people not to vote or calling into question the legitimacy of the upcoming election.”

The ads policies for the election garnered media coverage at the time, Meta added, linking to a Washington Post article published in August 2022. That article addresses the company’s policy toward posts featuring 2020 election-denial claims but does not specifically touch on Meta’s election-related ad policy.

An Axios story, published in the same month, noted that the company would reject ads “calling into question the legitimacy of the upcoming election.”

Last year, Meta also updated the policy page devoted to election-related ad policies with details of the new rules.

The renewed attention to the move by Meta coincides with the loosening of election-related content restrictions at other major tech platforms. Google-owned YouTube announced in June that it would halt the removal of content claiming widespread voter fraud in 2020 and other past elections.

A civic integrity policy updated in August by X, formerly known as Twitter, does not address false claims about previous elections.

Katie Harbath, a former public-policy director at Facebook who was no longer at the company when it revamped the election-denial ad policy, said political considerations would “100%” be a part of the decision-making process at Meta on such a rule.

“It would be absolutely foolish to say that politics didn’t play a role in this,” Harbath told ABC News, noting that a Republican-controlled House and Senate could target Meta with public hearings.

Trump could put pressure on Meta if he wins next year’s presidential contest, added Harbath.

“I don’t think it was the only consideration, but the reality is it had to have been taken into account,” she said, adding that stewardship of a major company often includes paying attention to its perception among policymakers.

Trump faces federal and state charges over alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election based in part on false claims of widespread voter fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges and has denied any wrongdoing.

In 2021, then-Facebook spokesperson Corey Chambliss told Politico that the company’s content policy and public policy teams “operate independently.”

Meta’s content policy team uses input from a variety of departments at the company, among them: “Operations, Engineering, Legal, Human Rights, Civil Rights, Safety, Comms and Public Policy,” Chambliss said.

“In these instances Public Policy is just one of many groups consulted,” Chambliss added.

Harbath, an elections program lead at the advocacy group Integrity Institute and former digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said she probably would have made the same decision on the policy toward ads denying the 2020 election.

“I get really, really squeamish, as somebody who was at the company, when it comes to political rhetoric in terms of picking and choosing what’s acceptable and not acceptable, and how to do it at scale,” Harbath added.

Yael Eisenstat, a former senior elections integrity employee at Facebook, said the involvement of Meta’s public policy team in decisions about its platforms risks a perception that political influence holds sway in its policy moves.

“When the public policy team at Meta is involved in platform policy and the enforcement of policy, it makes it very hard for the company to argue that this is not politically influenced,” Eisenstat told ABC News.

Eisenstat, a former special advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden, criticized the ad-policy decision. “I don’t understand the logic of specifying which elections people can lie about and which they can’t,” Eisenstat said.

The updated election-denial ad policy at Meta came about after the company weighed banning political ads altogether last year, including months of preparation on potential policy and enforcement, people familiar with the matter said.

Clegg supported a policy banning political ads because he believed they posed challenges for the company while making up a small share of content on its platforms and ad revenue, a person familiar with the matter said.

Ultimately the plan to ban ads was scrapped, giving way to discussions of a revised version of a policy instituted in 2020, the sources added.

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