Facebook thinks campaign ads aren’t fake news – that’s wrong

facebook campaign ad
Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of global affairs and communications, announces the social media giant's policy for political speech – including campaign ads – at the Atlantic Festival in Washington DC, September 24, 2019. Image credit: Facebook

For a couple of years now, Facebook has been under fire for allowing its platform to be exploited by political groups and state actors to spread fake news and other disinformation with the explicit goal of affecting the outcome of democratic elections in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

Lately, with the 2020 presidential elections looming on the horizon, Facebook made numerous announcements saying that it’s doing what it can to flag and block false info – unless it comes in the form of political speeches and campaign ads, which Facebook has exempted.

Which is ironic, as political speeches and campaign ads are often textbook exercises in misleading and false information.

Facebook’s reasoning is that such content is considered “newsworthy” speech. For example, if Senator Devious says in a speech, a post or a campaign ad that nuns cause cancer, Facebook won’t ban the ad, the post, or any posts reporting that Senator Devious said nuns cause cancer – because while it is not true that nuns cause cancer, it is true that Senator Devious said that nuns cause cancer. And Facebook thinks people have a right to know that Senator Devious goes around saying such things.

That policy has already been put to the test in the form of a pro-Trump ad from a political group that accuses Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of blackmailing Ukraine to help his son out of legal trouble when Biden was President Obama’s VP. Even though that particular allegation has been sufficiently debunked elsewhere, Facebook has declined to block the ad for the reasons given above.

Meanwhile, senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren responded to the policy by placing a Facebook ad making false allegations about Mark Zuckerberg just to see whether Facebook would block it.

It hasn’t. Yet. So, points for consistency, I guess.

Apart from the “newsworthy” angle, Facebook’s other justification for not vetting campaign ads for accuracy is that no one else does it.

Which is more or less true. While print and broadcast ads for commercial products and services are governed by truth-in-advertising regulations in the US, political ads are not.

One reason for this is that politics in general has a strained relationship with “truth”. Politicians and party leaders regularly bend, spin and manipulate “truth” to fit their party ideologies, policy objectives and personal ambitions. Campaign ads are designed to do exactly this.

Another reason the US doesn’t regulate campaign ads for truthfulness is that the government doesn’t really want to be in the business of deciding for everyone when an ad from a given political candidate or group is making untrue statements. This is partly because politicians tend to say things in ways so that they can later say they didn’t say what you thought they said – i.e. does President Nasty really think groundhogs are stealing the nation’s vegetable oil supplies, or was he simply making a joke that was quotes out of context?

A more serious concern is whether the government should have the power to dictate to the people what is true and what isn’t. Once you start down that road, eventually you arrive at a point where “truth” is whatever the ruling power says it is, and anyone who says otherwise is committing treason (see: 2 + 2 = 5).

Indeed, the state of Ohio recently tried to pass a law requiring political ads to be truthful, but a court struck it down for that very reason.

In any case, Facebook’s main argument is that it’s pointless for social media platforms to vet campaign ads for truthfulness when the same ads run on TV with no vetting at all.

This is technically true. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the two scenarios are equitable.

For one thing, unlike Facebook, TV stations are legally required to run ads that come from candidates. (As I understand it, stations can refuse ads from third parties not directly associated with the candidate – CNN refused to run the Biden/Ukraine ad for containing false claims – but many don’t because, honestly, they need the money.)

Also, TV ads don’t have the scale that social media platforms do in terms of reach and distribution. More people watch TV than access the internet in the US (305.4 million vs 275 million, respectively, in 2018, though that’s expected to change in the next three or four years), but a TV station runs a given ad only so many times per day. TV can’t make an ad go viral like Facebook can, or ensure that only select viewers will see it.

Social media platforms have been – and are still being – leveraged to interfere with elections with disinformation campaigns and other techniques. Campaign ads are another tool in that toolbox, and it’s both lazy and naïve for Facebook (and Twitter, for that matter) to pretend candidates, political activist groups and state actors won’t take advantage of this exemption.

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