Mark Zuckerberg landed in the hot seat at his own dinner party this week. The Facebook CEO invited over national Civil Rights leaders, who challenged the company’s much-criticized policy allowing politicians to run false political ads. Facebook claims this approach protects speech from over-regulation by business. Twitter, meanwhile, went the opposite route and announced Oct. 30 that it will stop running political ads altogether, citing concerns that political reach should be “earned, not bought” by those who can afford to amplify their messages widely online.
Two think tank researchers tracking the issue debate: Should social media platforms regulate political advertising?
In recent weeks, President Trump ran an ad on Facebook with discredited allegations about former vice president Joe Biden’s relationship with Ukraine. Despite requests from Biden’s campaign to take down the ad, Facebook refused, stating the ad didn’t violate its policies on political advertising. Facebook has recently defended its policy to exempt political ads from third-party fact-checking.
The exemption effectively allows any politician to run ads on the platform that contain deceptive, false, or misleading information.
Facebook’s reasoning for this exemption is that it prioritizes free expression and deems political speech as newsworthy content that should not be subject to the platform’s community standards. To be sure, free expression is an important democratic value. But the rise of social media platforms has changed the way we receive news and information compared to traditional media platforms.
Political candidates are also spending an increasing amount of money to run ads on social media to influence voters. That’s why Facebook’s hands-off policy poses a danger. Giving politicians free rein to spread lies using political ads shows a disregard for the role Facebook and other social media platforms play in disseminating information to voters and how political candidates can abuse these policies to spread disinformation.
First, it’s important to understand the unique role Facebook and other social media platforms play when it comes to advertising. Facebook’s business model is based on collecting as much data on its users as possible. It then shares relevant data points including users’ demographic information with advertisers for targeted advertising. This means political candidates can target their ads to communities who may be more receptive to false or misleading statements.
This is inherently different from political ads aired on traditional media (broadcast stations or cable networks) where the entire viewing audience can see the ad.
Political candidates have exploited Facebook’s targeted advertising capabilities in the past. For example, in 2016 pro-Trump ads on Facebook targeted African-Americans to discourage them from voting in the election. This year, the president’s campaign has run ads with inflammatory statements targeting senior citizens.
Facebook believes that voters should decide for themselves what politicians are saying. But when politicians can target a subset of voters with false and misleading information, it diminishes the ability to openly debate these claims, erects barriers to voter participation, and ultimately undermines the integrity of our elections.
Beyond that, Facebook is not a content neutral platform. Facebook displays content to its users based on algorithms that optimize for engagement. The content that generates the most engagement tends to be provocative speech, misinformation, or sensationalist stories. Allowing politicians to run ads with false statements takes advantage of Facebook’s engagement-focused algorithms to amplify harmful content.
So the question becomes how should Facebook handle ads from political candidates that contain false or misleading statements. The easiest solution would be for Facebook to stop running political ads all together. In announcing that it would stop allowing all political ads, Twitter recognized that this type of content poses unique risks on social media platforms. Twitter’s announcement puts more pressure on Facebook to come to the same conclusion.
But even if Facebook refuses to do this, it can take other steps to mitigate the harms from deceptive political ads — like limiting the ability for political candidates to run ads that are micro-targeted to specific communities. Facebook could also label political ads with disclaimers that have not gone through third-party fact-checking.
Whatever steps Facebook takes, it’s clear that the platform cannot stand idly by and allow politicians to spread disinformation.
Yosef Getachew is the Media & Democracy program director at Common Cause. A version of this piece first appeared at InsideSources.com.
During his recent appearance at Georgetown University, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg summed up the company’s predicament: “Right now, we’re doing a very good job at getting everyone mad at us.”
Taking responsibility for the company’s public perception problem is admirable and a good sign for consumer power at a time when the company is facing government antitrust scrutiny. And the company is making some consumer-friendly changes.
Specifically, Facebook says it’s adopting a policy of not fact-checking or otherwise limiting most political advertisements, in response to charges of censorship of both far right and far left political content — which, indeed, made a lot of people mad.
The problem is, no matter what it does, Facebook will not be able to appease all critics — which include many members of Congress, academics and journalists.
Following news of the no-fact-check policy, John Stanton, co-founder of the Save Journalism Project, accused Facebook of putting “countless journalists out of work” while “providing a platform for Zuckerberg propaganda.” He believes tech giants like Facebook are sucking up all the reader attention and ad revenue that would otherwise flow to establishment news sources, while offering a platform megaphone to the CEO’s own viewpoints.
What Stanton and other critics fail to realize is that Facebook’s hands-off approach to fact-checking is actually a boon to journalists. Having Facebook fact-check political ads and other primary-source statements from politicians would only exacerbate displacement of journalists. After all, isn’t fact-checking politicians what journalists are supposed to do?
No one should want Facebook to fact-check or limit content. The platform is valuable to users precisely because it offers primarily user-directed content. The company has a big incentive for users to see both what a politician is saying as well as all the subsequent analysis from as many journalists and fellow citizens as possible.
The real source of criticism has much more to do with the complaint about ad revenue. Facebook has, evidently, created a better, more useful platform for advertisers compared to news websites or print outlets.
Yet even there, media companies and journalists are already looking beyond ad dollars and instead finding new ways to bring in revenue. Plenty of news sites offer online subscriptions for valuable content, a funding source that brings an added benefit of making publications beholden to subscribers, not advertisers.
Twitter should be free to take the path of banning political ads as well. We shouldn’t expect tech companies to develop perfect policies on political speech, but instead offer competing policies and allow consumers to decide.
And the field of journalism is benefiting from new competition from nonprofits and others who previously lacked the ability to reach readers and viewers. Countless hours of informative podcasts and other media are uploaded to platforms daily, most without any semblance or expectation of advertiser support.
Without a doubt, there is a major shift going on in the news media landscape being driven by online platforms. Journalists and others who value the flow of information in a free and open marketplace should be focused on adapting and offering new and better value products and services to readers. Those are the businesses and individuals who will succeed.
The losers will be those who want to use government to prop up politically favored news sources. Actually, if that scenario comes to pass, the real losers will be consumers themselves, who will lose an open, unregulated marketplace for news.
Patrick Hedger is a research fellow for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. A version of this piece first appeared at InsideSources.com.