Don’t Shoot the Messenger’s Social Network

Daniel Castro November 12, 2019
November 12, 2019

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While most people agree lying is wrong, nobody seems to agree on what should happen to those lies when politicians publish them on social media. The proposals put forth so far—ban dishonest political ads, ban targeted political ads, or ban all political ads—all offer cures that may be worse than the disease.

Facebook’s position, outlined in a recent speech that CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered at Georgetown University, is that it is not “right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.” He went on to argue, “We don’t fact check political ads. We don’t do this to help politicians, but because we think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying. And if content is newsworthy, we also won’t take it down even if it would otherwise conflict with many of our standards.” The company still sets some hard limits on allowable content on its platform, such as restricting voter suppression efforts that include tactics such as providing inaccurate polling or voter-eligibility information.

This position doesn’t sit well with many people, especially those on the left. Many high-profile Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, have sharply critiqued the company’s position, arguing that social media sites should reject demonstrably false allegations in political ads. In contrast, Republicans have been more open to the free speech argument, in part because they feel social media sites have already gone too far in limiting speech on their platforms. In particular, some critics say these sites already have an anti-conservative bias—pointing to recent bans of far-right commentators like Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Laura Loomer—and worry that any additional restrictions could disproportionately restrict voices on the right.

It is easy to turn Facebook into a political punching bag, because the problem is that there isn’t a perfect solution. Consider the alternatives.

One option would be to ban dishonest political ads. This proposal may sound good, but it wouldn’t be feasible. While a few extreme ads contain obvious falsehoods (such as the now infamous one about Hunter Biden), most are much more ambiguous. Fact checkers already struggle with analyzing specific claims, recognizing that veracity is often debatable, subject to interpretation, and falls on a spectrum. The simple fact is that politicians don’t always tell the truth, and eradicating lies from democracy is a futile effort. How many claims in an ad must be questionable before it is banned? Who ultimately decides what is the truth? And how can companies possibly scale such fact checking globally—across scores of countries, languages, and elections? Given that politicians on both sides of the aisle already believe social networks wield too much political power, it is surprising that some are advocating for them to have an even greater role in politics.

Another option is to ban campaigns from targeting political ads toward specific audiences based on their demographics, interests, and behaviors—an idea endorsed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. As University of Virginia media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, “If the same political ads were to reach everyone in a state, district or even country, they would not just appeal to marginal constituencies, might not tend toward extremism, and could not get away with lies quite so easily.” However, banning targeted political ads would just make it more expensive to get messages in front of voters—targeted ads are more effective, so campaigns would have to spend more for similar levels of ad effectiveness—putting less well-funded candidates and activists at a disadvantaged compared to deep-pocketed political players. This is a good option for those who think democracies are best run by billionaires. Moreover, even if campaigns do not target specific groups on social media, they will continue to tailor their messages to their audiences in print advertising, direct mail, and stump speeches.

Finally, some people, such as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, say social networks should just ban all political ads. Twitter is well within its rights to make that decision, but that does not mean it is without consequence. One problem is that it is exceedingly difficult to separate the political from the non-political. For example, this policy might allow an oil company to buy ads promoting non-renewable energy sources, but bar political organizations from running ads criticizing these companies for contributing to climate change. As Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, explained, “You can’t ban these ads without significantly inhibiting the ability of activists, labor groups and organizers to make their cases too.” Another problem is that this would make popularity on social media an even more valuable currency. Social media influencers would be the new political power brokers. And of course, if social media bans political ads, why shouldn’t radio, print, and television also ban them?

While Facebook’s policy on political ads is not perfect, neither are the alternatives. So it is perfectly reasonable to allow a private company, even one the size of Facebook, to determine which rules make best sense for its users. After all, it takes time to test and develop solutions, and Facebook is already showing some good progress. For example, this year it has significantly increased political ad transparency in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, confirming the identity of all political advertisers and housing all ads in a searchable ad archive. And the company is likely to evolve its policy in the future as it collects more data, listens to user feedback, and better understands the options available.

Legislators have tools at their disposal as well. Congress can pass legislation such as the Honest Ads Act, which would require social media companies to increase transparency of paid political advertising on their platforms and make reasonable efforts to ensure foreign entities do not purchase political ads. Moreover, if lawmakers believe it is constitutional to place additional limits on what political ads can say, and if they believe that is in the national interest, then they should pass laws to that effect. But they should apply these laws to all forms of political advertising, including radio, TV, print media, and direct mail. Alternatively, if they themselves do not have that authority, or if they believe it is not supportive of a vibrant democracy, then they should focus on other options, such as increasing support for media literacy and digital literacy programs, which have proven effective in other countries to help voters combat misinformation, or increasing transparency in political funding, so that the true source of support for political activity is made public.

But what policymakers should not do is believe everything they read online—and contrary to what some critics say, there are no simple solutions to this longstanding problem.