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Twitter, Facebook targets in campaigns

This photo combo of images shows, clockwise, from upper left: President Donald Trump speaking during a news conference at the White House on July 22, 2020, in Washington, the Twitter app, Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaking during a campaign event on July 14, 2020, in Wilmington, Del., and the Facebook app. With just 100 days to go until Election Day, President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden aren't just attacking one another in online ads. Their ads are also targeting tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. (AP Photo)

CHICAGO -- Social media has become the target of dueling attack ads by the campaigns of the sitting president and his election rival. They're shooting the messenger while giving it lots of money.

President Donald Trump has bought hundreds of messages on Facebook to accuse its competitor, Twitter, of trying to stifle his voice and influence the November election.

Democratic challenger Joe Biden has spent thousands of dollars advertising on Facebook with a message of his own: In dozens of ads on the platform, he's asked supporters to sign a petition calling on Facebook to remove inaccurate statements, specifically those from Trump.

The major social media companies are navigating a political minefield as they try to minimize domestic misinformation and rein in foreign actors from manipulating their sites as they did in the last presidential election. Their new actions -- or in some cases, lack of action -- have triggered explosive, partisan responses, ending their glory days as self-described neutral platforms.

Even as the two presidential campaigns dump millions of dollars a week into Facebook and Google ads, both are also using online ads to criticize the tech platforms for their policies. Trump is accusing Twitter and Snapchat of interfering in this year's election. Biden has sent multiple letters to Facebook and attacked the company for policies that allow politicians, Trump specifically, to freely make false claims on its site. Biden is paying Facebook handsomely to show ads that accuse Facebook of posing a "threat" to democracy.

Meantime, Trump is paying Facebook to run ads trashing the medium he uses like none other, Twitter.

"Twitter is interfering in the 2020 Election by attempting to SILENCE your President," claimed one of nearly 600 ads Trump's campaign placed on Facebook

It's "a huge departure from 2016," said Emerson Brooking, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, a Washington think tank. "If you were leading the Trump or Clinton campaign, you weren't writing letters to Facebook all day long. It wasn't so much a central campaign issue. Now it seems like it very much is."

Americans are on high alert about the platforms' policies after discovering that Russian trolls posted divisive messages, created fake political events and even used rubles to buy Facebook ads intended for U.S. audiences in the 2016 election. Research already shows the Kremlin is at it again.

Facebook and Twitter have banned voting-related misinformation and vowed to identify and shut down inauthentic networks of accounts run by domestic or foreign troublemakers. Twitter has banned political ads altogether, a decision that a company spokesman told the AP it stands behind. And Facebook, along with Google, began disclosing campaign ad spending while banning non-Americans from buying U.S. political ads.

Facebook didn't comment for this story.

But calls to deflate big tech's ballooning power have only grown louder from both Democrats and Republicans, even though the two parties are targeting different companies for different reasons to rally supporters.

Those politics will no doubt be on full display Wednesday, when four CEOs -- Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Google's Sundar Pichai and Apple's Tim Cook -- testify to a House Judiciary Committee panel as part of a congressional investigation into the tech industry's dominance.


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