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Man runs for Governor just to post fake political ads, but Facebook says it won’t let him

Adriel Hampton, a marketer and progressive activist in San Francisco, who on Monday announced his intention to run for governor of California in protest of the policy, posting fake ads to prove his point.

A 3D-printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed stock graph. (Reuters)

By Niraj Chokshi

For weeks, Facebook has been assailed for a policy that allows politicians and their campaigns to post nearly whatever they want, including false and misleading claims. Critics have included Democratic presidential candidates and several hundred Facebook employees.

This week, another critic emerged: Adriel Hampton, a marketer and progressive activist in San Francisco, who on Monday announced his intention to run for governor of California in protest of the policy, posting fake ads to prove his point.

Facebook has since said that it won’t allow Hampton to take advantage of its lax approach to political speech despite his candidacy, and he says he is exploring his legal options.

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Here’s the latest on the social network’s policy and Hampton’s crusade against it.

 What is everyone complaining about?

The criticism of Facebook is centered on a hands-off policy that it announced in September, when Nick Clegg, a Facebook executive and former deputy prime minister of Britain, said the company would generally allow speech by politicians “even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.”

Effectively, the announcement meant that Facebook would give politicians and their campaigns nearly free rein to post what they want, even false or misleading information, while still holding other users to a higher standard.

Despite the ensuing criticism, the social network has since doubled down. On Wednesday, Campbell Brown, the head of news partnerships at the company and a former television news journalist, defended the policy in a Facebook post, saying, “I strongly believe it should be the role of the press to dissect the truth or lies found in political ads — not engineers at a tech company.”

Why do some people think that’s bad?

To many of those worried about election integrity in the United States, Facebook was a significant channel through which damaging misinformation spread in 2016. Its stance toward political speech now shows that it is not taking an active role in fighting such misinformation, they say.

This month, former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign asked Facebook to remove a Trump campaign ad that it said made false accusations about Biden. CNN refused to air the segment, but Facebook said it would not take any action. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, called on Facebook to take down the ad, too, and separately tested the policy by buying ads featuring false claims about the company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg.

A letter criticizing the policy has circulated within Facebook for weeks now, with more than 250 employees having signed it as of Monday.

“We strongly object to this policy as it stands,” the letter reads. “It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.”

 What about Hampton’s effort?

Hampton, who has consulted with campaigns and run for office himself before, is no stranger to politics. But his campaign for governor owes its existence, at least in part, to a relative newcomer: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

During a hearing last week, Ocasio-Cortez grilled Zuckerberg about his company’s policy, asking if she would be free to target Republicans in primary elections with ads claiming that they had voted for the Green New Deal, a progressive plan to tackle climate change.

“I think probably,” he said. That gave Hampton an idea: “I was like: ‘Oh my God, what if we just made that ad? What if we did it?’ ”

So Hampton, who had created a liberal, digitally focused political action committee, reached out to a colleague and designer for help producing a fake political advertisement that claimed to be from a group called Conservatives for a Green New Deal and falsely stated that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., supported the proposal.

Hampton was able to get the ad posted on Facebook, but it was soon taken down. He tried again by working with Mike Gravel, the retired senator from Alaska whose brief run for the Democratic nomination ended this summer, but the ad was again rejected.

After an independent fact checker explained why, Hampton decided that he had to run for office himself.

“I realized that the only way that we were going to be able to move quickly enough on this is if I did it,” he said. And so, on Monday, he announced on Twitter that he had formally submitted his intention to run for office, earning the attention of several news publications.

In a statement, Facebook said Hampton’s content would continue to be fair game for fact-checking because he had “made clear” that he was running to circumvent the policy.

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“Apparently, it’s only OK to lie on Facebook if you don’t tell them you’re lying,” Hampton said. Now, he says, he is exploring his legal options, collecting donations and seeking candidates willing to post false or misleading ads that he will produce on their behalf.