As of late, it has been impossible to ignore the constant stream of Facebook scandals and privacy violations. From the Cambridge Analytica breach— where the company harvested data from 89 million users— to the Russian political advertisements that influenced the 2016 election, it is clear that Facebook has often been incapable of properly responding or anticipating its problems. The most recent Facebook uproar is about their policy on political advertisements. While Facebook says that they do fact-check news sources to a degree, they do not do the same for political advertising. Why? According to Facebook’s website, it is an issue of free speech:
“Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is. Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words.”
Let’s first unpack why this does not make sense, and then compare it to Twitter’s current political advertising and fake news policies. Facebook’s platform currently offers the ability for politicians to post their opinions: it’s called normal posts. Facebook does not fact-check either the posts or advertisements from politicians, and for regular posts this isn’t as large of an issue. Journalists, other politicians, and members of the general public can reply to that post and point out factual inaccuracies. Media sources can also run articles that explain why that post is incorrect.
On a BC sponsored trip to NYC earlier this semester, I got to hear Twitter’s Vice President of Global Public Policy Colin Crowell speak at length about political advertisements and fake news. Twitter has a similar policy to Facebook in regard to a politician’s regular posts: they are not fact-checked for free speech reasons. The vast majority of posts are also never 100% false—most posts are either mostly true or partially false, which makes it both difficult and morally questionable to determine what is “fake” enough to be removed. Similarly to Facebook, Twitter has come under fire for not removing tweets from Trump that appear to violate its own rules. Crowell laid out several good points for the argument as to not removing factually incorrect tweets from politicians. Twitter takes into account the public interest when considering whether to remove a tweet from world leaders by saying that it is important that leaders have the ability to speak to their constituents. It is also in the public interest to allow citizens and other politicians to directly react to this content. As Crowell explained, you can’t condemn a tweet if it is deleted; he also argued deleting a tweet would only result in the “Streisand Effect,” providing more coverage and exposure to that tweet. However, they are testing a banner that tells users if a tweet violates their policies, but was not removed for public interest reasons.
Thus, I would argue that both Facebook and Twitter are justified in allowing regular tweets or posts from politicians to be exempt from fact-checking. Facebook’s issue arises from not fact-checking political advertisements. As their claim states, “Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words.” This function is already perfectly accomplished by normal Facebook posts! Sure, you could argue that political advertisements show political views or ideas that one might not normally search for. But the inherent nature of these advertisements is never to simply “keep the public informed,” it is always for personal or political gain! This is also why refusing to fact-check advertisements is so problematic; lies and misleading information become legitimate strategies to help candidates win.
Elizabeth Warren recently tested this policy when she ran advertisements claiming Facebook and Zuckerburg had endorsed Trump for the 2020 election (this was followed in the ad by a disclaimer that this claim was not true, and she was highlighting the damaging effects of Facebook’s policies). The advertisements were accepted and ran on Facebook with zero issues. Similarly, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a hearing with Mark Zuckerburg, asked Zuckerburg if she would be able to run false advertisements claiming Republicans supported liberal policies such as the Green New Deal. Zuckerburg replied with “I think, probably.” She also asked him if advertisements targeting predominantly Black zip codes promoting the wrong election would be allowed. Zuckerburg replied that advertisements that could cause voter suppression, violence, or imminent physical harm were not allowed on the platform.
There are no clear boundaries or policy descriptions to explain what advertisements are and are not allowed on Facebook—the fact that Zuckerburg, the CEO, was unable to outright say “Yes” is a perfect demonstration of this. Allowing lies in political advertisements has the potential to further divide the country, especially with the ability to target advertisements to specific demographics. I could, for example, target Republican users with advertisements that say “New Leaked Audio shows that Nancy Pelosi is plotting to impeach Trump in order to install Hillary Clinton as president!” This claim is obviously false, but among those who believed it, the advertisement would cause further divisiveness and outrage. Or, if I wanted to, I could photoshop a picture of Joe Biden wearing Black face. Both of these examples are extremely problematic, but apparently allowed by Facebook!
It is for these reasons that Twitter’s policy on political advertisements is objectively the best—they do not allow any political advertisements at all. Twitter decided that a politician’s tweets are good enough to convey their messages and inform the public, and I would have to agree. Thus, I am calling on Facebook to follow Twitter’s lead: remove political advertisements, or at least remove ones that have clear, indisputable, factual inaccuracies.