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Despite Efforts to Stay Out of Political Fray, Facebook Under Fire for Allowing Ads Identifying Whistleblower

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Despite Efforts to Stay Out of Political Fray, Facebook Under Fire for Allowing Ads Identifying Whistleblower

2019-11-08 18:35:20

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Facebook logo (Image source: Public domain)

Facebook may be trying to do right by everyone with regard to how the presidential election will be handled this time around on the social network, but so far it seems to be missing the mark. 

They took much heat after the Cambridge-Analytica scandal that they were vowing to not mess up again. However, their actions this week definitely fell flat.

After the presidential election in 2016, it was learned that Facebook allowed Cambridge-Analytica to publish personality quizzes. However, the answers to the quizzes were actually used to gather data and learn who may be partial to a particular candidate’s cause and to then send users pointed political ads.  

While Twitter was announcing that they wouldn’t carry any political ads, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg refused to fact-check politicians’ ads.

“At times of social tension, there has often been an urge to pull back on free expression,” he said. ‘We will be best served over the long term by resisting this urge and defending free expression.” 

That came back to bite the CEO this week. Trump allies launched an all-out online campaign, which included Facebook, to publicly unmask the whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal after the intelligence officials’ name had been discovered weeks ago.

Trump and his allies have been pushing since the beginning for the identity of this person to be made public. However, this seems to go against the Whistleblower Protection Act that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report on violations of the law, rules, etc., within the government. 

While the name of the whistleblower was mentioned in more than 150,000 tweets in one 24-hour period last week, this week the name was published in an advertising campaign on Facebook that was financed by a North Carolina businessman.

The danger of this is that while Facebook did agree to remove the ads after The Washington Post queried about them, they were still viewed several hundred thousand times before that. 

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) demanded at a Trump campaign rally on Monday that news media publish a name. Breitbart did publish the name in a headline, and Donald Trump Jr. then published the article so that the headline containing the name would appear on his Twitter account.

The paid Facebook posts were particularly alarming to some. The whistleblower’s attorney, Andrew P. Bakaj, while not naming his client, said Facebook and others have an ethical responsibility to protect “those who lawfully expose suspected government wrongdoing.” 

“This is particularly significant in this case where I have made it clear time and time again that reporting any suspected name for the whistleblower will place that individual and their family at risk of serious harm,” said Bakaj.

“To that end, I am deeply troubled with Facebook seeking to profit from advertising that would place someone in harm’s way. This, frankly, is at the pinnacle of irresponsibility and is intentionally reckless.” 

In addition to the paid Facebook posts, some conservative groups published the whistleblower’s name on their own pages. Facebook’s paid promotion tools were used to “boost” the posts with the name to users who may not have initially seen the references.

Facebook came under fire for allowing these posts to go through. “If the ads are meant to intimidate and harass and threaten people, that would be wrong, and it might be illegal,” said John N. Tye, a former State Department official who had his own turn as a whistleblower in 2014 and founded the nonprofit Whistleblower Aid.  

“Certainly if it were being commercialized, getting paid to participate in that would be wrong,” he added.

A Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said all of the ads in question that were identified by The Post were being removed. 

“Any mention of the potential whistleblower’s name violates our coordinating harm policy, which prohibits content ‘outing of witness, informant, or activist,” said Stone.

Additionally, Bakaj sent a letter to the White House on Thursday demanding that Trump stop insisting that the whistleblower’s identity be published, noting that his “reckless and dangerous” comments already had intimidated the whistleblower. 

“Let me be clear: should any harm befall any suspected named whistleblower or their family, the blame will rest squarely with your client,” he wrote. It was addressed to White House counsel Pat Cipollone with copies sent to congressional leaders as well.

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