In an effort to prevent future foreign meddling in elections, Facebook has begun rolling out a fix: Anyone who wants to buy a political or issue ad in the United States must have a Social Security number along with a U.S. passport or valid driver’s license.
But the social media giant’s new authentication procedures aren’t just stopping Russian meddling; they’re also effectively banning an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States from buying political ads on any topic — including immigration. That prohibition also applies to people in the DACA program, often referred to as “Dreamers,” who are in the midst of a political battle over their legal status in Congress and the courts.
“This is excluding an important part of the nation who are being affected by its policies,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat who was undocumented in the U.S. in his youth, told VICE News. “It will carve them out of being part of any issue-oriented campaign, and if undocumented people want to weigh in on DACA or Dreamers, they can't in the same way.”
Facebook is rolling out these new features for federal elections over the next month or two, with plans of extending them to state and local races, even though undocumented immigrants are allowed to vote in some localities. In San Francisco, near Facebook’s headquarters, undocumented immigrants can vote in school board races, for example.
Facebook acknowledged to VICE News that the new political ad system was excluding undocumented immigrants. “We know that process, as currently designed, presents challenges for some groups, and we’re exploring solutions now to address those concerns," a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. FWD.us, a D.C.-based immigrant advocacy group founded by Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, also declined to comment.
Undocumented immigrants aren’t allowed to vote or directly donate to federal candidates, but Facebook’s verification system goes well beyond the federal limits on political speech. Federal election rules apply only to ads that directly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate, not to so-called “issue ads” that focus on a political topic but don’t mention a candidate.
“The foreign national prohibition is not applied to ads that don’t mention candidates,” said Brendan Fischer, a director at the Campaign Legal Center.
“Efforts to clamp down on foreign interference could have unintended consequences”
Facebook, however, goes a step further in wanting to verify every ad “related to any national legislative issue of public importance in any place where the ad is being run.”
Part of the rationale for the broad definition is that the majority of the Russian-bought ads during and after the 2016 election didn't mention Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump but rather were focused on polarizing issues like race, religion, and, yes, immigration.
“This is a sensitive area where it is possible that efforts to clamp down on foreign interference could have unintended consequences,” said Fischer.
Immigrant rights activists are upset that Facebook’s decision not only excludes a large group of vulnerable people but also could have real political consequences on the immigration debate.
“This idea that if you are undocumented that you don’t have a voice on one of the major platforms is undemocratic,” said Angel Padilla, the policy director for the progressive group Indivisible, which has been especially active advocating for Dreamers. “This is a flawed way of trying to tackle foreign interference, and the consequence here is the harming of people that have a valid claim on the process.”
Facebook isn’t alone in trying to reign in foreign interference on their platform. Google also last week announced a new verification system for any “election ad” that will require proving that the buyer is a U.S. citizen or a “lawful permanent resident.”
“The next three decisions on speech by Facebook, Google, and Twitter are maybe more important than the next 30 Supreme Court decisions on it”
But Google’s new rules are far more limited than Facebook’s and only apply to federal elections and candidate advocacy. A Google spokesman told VICE News they are “looking at issue ads but no process to announce there at this time.” They haven't made a decision yet about local elections, meaning that localities that allow undocumented immigrants to vote are so far unaffected.
Legal scholars told VICE News that undocumented immigrants may not have any legal recourse to Facebook’s actions since private companies have far more discretion in regulating speech on their platforms than lawmakers do.
“The First Amendment does not apply generally to private actors,” Joshua Geltzer, the founding executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law School, told VICE News. “Unless that actor is being co-opted by government, they really have the right to regulate speech across their platform in all sorts of ways that government cannot.”
But Geltzer argued that just because Facebook’s actions are legal doesn’t mean they shouldn't be scrutinized.
“The next three decisions on speech by Facebook, Google, and Twitter are maybe more important than the next 30 Supreme Court decisions on it,” he said.
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlxThomp
Editor's note 5/16 3:57 p.m.: This story has been updated to include Facebook's response.