Facebook says it will ban voting misinformation ahead of midterms

(CBSNews) -- Facebook is cracking down on the spread of false information in the final weeks before the midterm elections. The world's largest social network says it will ban fake content designed to suppress voter turnout. The announcement comes just two weeks after Facebook says hackers compromised 29 million accounts and stole users' personal data, reports CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil. 

Scandals involving misinformation and data misuse over the past few months have forced Facebook into all-out damage control. This latest policy change addresses one of Facebook's most sensitive challenges – defining false information and removing it.

In May, CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to prevent election interference on Facebook.

"This is an important election year. Not only the big U.S. midterms that are coming up, but there are major elections around the world," he said. "In 2016, we were slow to identify Russian interference….We didn't expect these coordinated information operation and large networks of fake accounts that we're now aware of."

To help reduce the spread of disinformation, Facebook in 2016 began prohibiting misrepresentations about the dates, locations, times and qualifications for casting a ballot.

On Monday, the company announced an expanded policy to include statements about whether a ballot will be counted and misleading posts about how to vote including false claims that voters can cast their ballots using text messaging. That hoax circulated on social media during the 2016 election with ads instructing users to text their candidate's name to a five-digit number.

While Facebook has traditionally shied away from banning misinformation, CBS News contributor and Wired editor-in-chief Nick Thompson says this new policy marks a significant step for the company.

"They've seen a pattern of a lot of false statements about voting, so they've decided to take this extra step," Thompson said. "The stakes are now high. They said they will delete false information. But now they have to define false information and that's not easy."

On Capitol Hill last month, lawmakers threatened greater scrutiny – and even regulation – if Facebook and other social networks failed to gain greater control of their services.

"The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end," Sen. Mark Warner said. "I believe Congress is going to have to act."

Thompson says the midterm elections will be a significant moment for Facebook.

"If they can get through the midterms without people manipulating American democracy through the platform, it will show that they took on the problem and they handled it. But if there's another disaster – if the election gets manipulated through Facebook – it's going to just deepen the problems they already have," he said.

Facebook says it uses real people, including third-party fact checkers, to review content that is flagged as potentially involving voter suppression. The company says it's also set up dedicated reporting channels for state election authorities to do the same.

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