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Zuckerberg’s take on political ads is tone-deaf in the Trump Age

The CEO says Facebook’s political ad policy is in the service of democracy and the public good. But this claim is undermined by its profit motive.

Zuckerberg’s take on political ads is tone-deaf in the Trump Age
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Georgetown University in a “Conversation on Free Expression” in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 2019. [Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/ AFP/Getty Images]

If Facebook wants to continue hosting political ads, including half-true ones, then it should stop profiting from them and handle them like public service announcements.

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This might lend some credence to the company’s position that it continues hosting political ads mainly for the sake of free speech, democracy, and the public good, which Mark Zuckerberg suggested in his “free speech” speech at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall Thursday.

Zuckerberg said he actually considered banning political ads from Facebook altogether, reasoning that the public relations benefit of doing so might outweigh the financial loss, but thought better of it.

“. . . political ads are an important part of voice—especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise,” Zuckerberg said. “Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

It sounded good, but as with most everything Facebook does, any good intentions are undermined by a profit motive.

Facebook earns money from exposing its users to carefully targeted ads from big spenders such as the Trump campaign—by far the company’s biggest client for political ads. And contrary to Zuckerberg’s claim, continuing to sell ads may favor the biggest incumbents with the deepest pockets.

Alas, I’ve never seen Facebook do anything that cost it real ad dollars, and Zuckerberg made it clear that’s not changing now.

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A two-sided policy of disinformation

The main point of Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown was to answer the mainly negative response to his company’s September 24 policy announcement that it will allow disinformation in political ads.

“We don’t fact-check political ads,” Zuckerberg said, underlining the new policy. “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,” he said—a statement that seems to contradict many of Facebook’s previous positions. Facebook has gone to great lengths to reduce the spread of harmful content, including disinformation, in user posts on its platform. It’s hired thousands of human content moderators to remove toxic content. It’s investing in AI that detects toxic posts before they spread. It’s begun applying warning labels to news items that might be fake. It now restricts the spread of misinformation posts in order to reduce their influence. It’s even begun an initiative to help developers create computer-vision tools to detect deepfake videos.

Yet Facebook has decided not to apply any part of its “remove, reduce, and inform” approach to misinformation in political ads. There are no labels to warn people that a statement made in a political ad is false or baseless. And political ads may be the most sensitive and influential type of speech on the platform.

“They’ve made it clear they will not be doing that for political ads,” says misinformation researcher Renée DiResta. “There appears to be a lack of consistency between these two policies, and I’m interested in understanding how they plan to square that circle.”

A labeling system might have been useful when millions of Facebook users last week saw a Donald Trump ad containing a baseless claim about presidential candidate Joe Biden’s dealings with Ukraine while he was vice president.

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The Biden camp demanded that Facebook remove the ad. Facebook refused. So did Twitter and Google’s YouTube. CNN removed the TV version of the ad.

Facebook’s head of global elections policy, Katie Harbath, argued in a letter to the Biden campaign that political speech needs less fact-checking because it’s “already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”

Trump’s Biden ad got plenty of scrutiny. But most of Trump’s ads don’t. For many, many people Facebook is an echo chamber filled with like minds, a confirmation-bias system. Many people probably took the ad’s assertion, that Biden promised Ukraine $1 billion to fire a prosecutor investigating a company where his son Hunter sat on the board, as fact.

Maybe it is Facebook’s bad luck that its worst aspects are being amplified by our politics in the Trump age. But the company is not helping itself by rigidly imposing free speech standards that ignore the present moment. Especially after the 2016 election, it can’t ignore that free speech is being used for real harm in our politics now and must be checked—fact-checked.

That Facebook has given a platform to Trump’s kind of politics is bad enough. Profiting from it is even worse.

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Facebook already has stopped paying commissions that incentivized its employees to sell political ads, saying it didn’t want to encourage a “more is better” attitude among ad buyers. Facebook political ads are now self-served from a web portal. In this way, it’s already treating political ads as something of a public service. It should consider extending this policy further and give all candidates at all levels an equal allotment of ads.

But DiResta may have a better answer, and a more palatable one for Facebook—simply apply the standards the company has created for organic posts to political ads.

Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, for one, agrees. “It’s up to you whether you take money to promote lies,” Warren tweeted last weekend. “You can be in the disinformation-for-profit business, or you can hold yourself to some standards.”

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