In an announcement that lit up, well, Twitter, the social media giant’s CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted on Wednesday that Twitter will ban all political ads. But Facebook — which has a much broader reach — continues to accept political ads and has no policy against false political advertising. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls it a “free speech” issue. But Facebook’s policy will turn the social media company into a cesspool of paid, targeted smears during the 2020 presidential campaign. The truth won’t stand a chance; lies spread much faster. Or as Jonathan Swift said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
But the fix isn’t just for Facebook to follow Twitter’s lead. Twitter’s ban includes not just candidate ads, but also issue ads “that advocate for or against legislative issues of national importance (such as: climate change, health care, immigration, national security, taxes).” Banning policy advocacy is a shame — discourse should be encouraged everywhere, including social media.
It’s now possible for candidates without the financial means to flood TV airwaves to get before voters using less expensive social media ads. If political ads are banned on social media, we revert to a world where big money determines who advertises.
The solution to the problem of political ads is well within Facebook’s reach. It includes two elements: ban the targeting of political ads and require documentation to back up claims in the ads.
With targeted ads, candidates can tailor their message for specific audiences: young or old; men or women; rich or poor. A liberal may never see the ad that conservatives see. This makes it easier to deceive without getting called on it.
Banning targeted political ads would solve this problem — you can’t sell one set of truths to one group and a different set to others. (Obviously, Facebook needs to continue to allow geographical targeting so a candidate in Massachusetts doesn’t waste funds showing ads to people in Nebraska, but Facebook can still require that all people in Massachusetts see the same message.)
The second problem is combatting lies. And the challenge here is that truth is difficult to assess, especially for a computer algorithm. But again, Facebook has the tools to do better.
Facebook recently announced a new feature, Facebook News, that will include only certified news sources. If a source in Facebook News publishes lies, Facebook will eject it.
Facebook should require political advertisers to provide justifications of all claims in their ads with sources in Facebook News. It should also require political advertisers to post publicly the ads and documentation for their claims. This would ensure that political opponents, watchdog groups, and the general public could call out false advertising.
If Facebook is such an advocate of free speech, it should support this system. The ads would be public and transparent. Facebook would tap the power of the public to identify false claims. And it could ban candidates who’ve repeatedly posted false ads from continuing to advertise.
This is a lot more work than letting fake ads spread freely, as Facebook has, or banning all ads, as Twitter has. But if social media is ever to become a force for spreading valuable information, rather than calumny, then social media giants must invest in policies that promote the truth.