By Katie Paul | Reuters

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 3 (Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Thursday it would stop accepting new political ads in the week before the U.S. presidential election in November, bowing to concern that its loose approach to free speech could once again be exploited to interfere with the vote.

The world’s biggest social network also said it was creating a label for posts by candidates or campaigns that try to claimvictory before the election results are official, and widening the criteria for content to be removed as voter suppression.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post announcing the changes that he was concerned about the uniquechallenges voters would face due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted a surge in voting by mail.

“I’m also worried that with our nation so divided and election results potentially taking days or even weeks to befinalized, there could be an increased risk of civil unrest across the country,” he said.

Zuckerberg has previously defended his decision to allow for a freewheeling political conversation on Facebook, includingthrough paid ads, which the company exempts from its fact-checking program with external partners, including Reuters.

He said in his post he continued to believe that the “best antidote to bad speech is more speech,” but acknowledged that inthe final days of an election, “there may not be enough time to contest new claims.”

Facebook will continue to allow campaigns and others to run political ads that are already in the system, and will permit them to change spending amounts and user targeting, but will block adjustments to the ads’ content or design.

Facebook has been battered by criticism, including from its own employees, since allowing several inflammatory posts byPresident Donald Trump to remain untouched earlier this summer, including one which contained misleading claims about mail-in ballots.

Disinformation experts have also raised the alarm, echoed in threat assessments by Facebook executives, about false claimsand conspiracy theories spreading in the increasingly likely scenario that official results are not immediately available onelection night.

Zuckerberg said Facebook was “increasingly seeing attempts to undermine the legitimacy of our elections from within our ownborders” in addition to foreign influence campaigns, like the one it and U.S. intelligence agencies determined Russia carriedout to meddle in the 2016 vote.

Moscow has denied the allegations.

To address those threats, Facebook will label any posts seeking to delegitimize the outcome of the election, he wrote.The company also will remove posts with misinformation about COVID-19 and voting, which Zuckerberg said could be used toscare people away from exercising their right to vote.

Seeking to boost credible information in addition to tamping down misleading posts, Facebook will partner with Reuters toprovide news in the social network’s Voting Information Center about official results.

Zuckerberg said the company would not plan to make any further changes to its election policies beyond those listed inhis post before the official declaration of the result.