Katie Couric grilled Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook's decision not to fact-check political ads

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Vanity FairKatie Couric interviewed Sheryl Sandberg at a Vanity Fair summit.

Katie Couric hit Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, with several tough questions about the company’s policy regarding political ads Tuesday at the Vanity Fair New Establishment summit in Beverly Hills, California.

Couric began the 40-minute panel “Putting a Best Facebook Foreword” by grilling Sandberg on how the platform planned to prevent misinformation surrounding the 2020 US presidential election. After briefly touching on fake accounts and state-run accounts, the conversation pivoted to political ads.

Sandberg emphasised that Facebook had “dramatically different” transparency from 2016, explaining that users could now see where any page originated and track all presidential ads. Couric took the opportunity to question Sandberg on Facebook’s policy of not fact-checking political ads.

“Why did Facebook announce not to fact-check political ads last month? The Rand Corporation actually has a term for this, ‘truth decay,’ and Mark himself has defended this decision, even as he expressed concerns about the erosion of truth online,” she asked, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “What is the rationale for that?” Couric even preempted Sandberg’s defence: “I know you’re going to say, ‘We’re not a news organisation, we’re a platform.'”

Sheryl Sandberg Katie Couric Vanity Fair SummitMatt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

“It’s a hard conversation, and emotions are running very high on this,” Sandberg said. “We’re not doing this for the money.” She declined to give an exact number but called political ads a “very small” part of Facebook’s revenue.

“We take political ads because we really believe they are part of political discourse,” Sandberg said.

But Couric didn’t let the conversation end there. She quoted Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, who said: “Simply put, while major news organisations strengthen fact-checking and accountability, Facebook is saying if you are a politician who wishes to peddle in lies, distortion, and not-so-subtle racial appeals, welcome to our platform. We will not fact-check. You are automatically newsworthy. You are automatically exempt from scrutiny.”

Sandberg continued to emphasise Facebook’s commitment to transparency and free speech, echoing Zuckerberg, who maintained in a speech at Georgetown last week that he didn’t want to “censor politicians or news in a democracy.”

Facebook declined to comment on Sandberg and Couric’s conversation.

Facebook has been facing criticism for its policy exempting political ads with misinformation from the normal third-party fact-checking process. The presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been especially critical, and breaking up Facebook is a major part of her platform. Earlier this month, she ran a fake Facebook ad claiming that Zuckerberg supported Trump’s reelection, and the company tried to call her out on Facebook, which did not go well for it.

During the interview, Sandberg reminded viewers that it’s early in the election cycle, and “we’re going to see a lot of controversial ads” going forward.

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