Democrats in Congress recently pressed Facebook on its political ads policy, hammering the social media giant for not having what they believe to be adequate safeguards in place to prevent political ads with dubious or outright false information.
During a congressional hearing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) even tried to get CEO Mark Zuckerberg to admit that anyone could run a political ad containing bald-faced lies.
“Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying that they voted for the Green New Deal? I mean, if you’re not fact-checking political advertisements, I’m just trying to understand the bounds here, what’s fair game,” she said.
Zuckerberg replied, “I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head, I think probably.”
“You don’t know if I’ll be able to do that?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
“I think probably,” Zuckerberg said.
“Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of fact-checking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
To which Zuckerberg replied, “Well, Congresswoman, I think lying is bad, and I think if you were to run an ad that had a lie in it, that would be bad. That’s different from it being … in our position, the right thing to do to prevent your constituents or people in an election from seeing that you had lied.”
Other mediums like television, radio and print media are subject to federal regulations (under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002) regarding financing and broadcasting of political ads. If a political action committee (PAC) runs an ad making false statements about a political opponent on your local ABC channel, both the PAC and ABC can face legal repercussions for slander, but proving slander against persons of public interest is almost impossible.
But social media platforms like Facebook don’t really fit into any of those existing categories.
“I think there’s a strong argument that America as a democracy benefits more when political ads are honest,” said Aram Sinnreich, chair of communication studies at American University. “If you get to that point, then you have the question, how do we enforce that? One answer is we can do a better job regulating the advertisers because they’re identifiable. The problem with 2016 is that you had Russian and other national disinformation campaigns paying for American political advertisements. That’s something that’s very simple to prevent. Russians should not be paying in rubles to spread disinformation around our campaigns. It’s pretty easy to tell Facebook you can’t do that.”
But telling Facebook how to moderate disinformation and how to distinguish truth from lies on its platform starts to raise First Amendment and free speech issues.
“If they did that, Republicans and Democrats would be invisible, none of their ads would pass,” said Roslyn Layton, a visiting tech policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s impossible to enforce.”
Critics point to prominent examples of Republicans and Democrats making statements that were less than truthful, such as President Donald Trump’s recent ad regarding Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, President Barack Obama’s repeated claim that under ObamaCare, “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” or then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) saying during the 2012 campaign that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any income taxes.
To stem the spread of misinformation, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced this week that the social media platform will ban all political ads globally.
Instead of the federal government stepping in to police what appears on Facebook, Layton thinks Facebook users should be able to decide for themselves what to believe about what they see on the social media platform.
“It’s inherently subjective,” she told InsideSources. “Zuckerberg has points that if you want to be a citizen in a democracy, it takes work, and you need to sort out for yourself what you believe and what you don’t believe, that’s the job of a voter. It’s not the job of government to do this. That prescription … is always trotted out by people who want to silence their [political] enemies. Why are people so afraid of people thinking for themselves?”
Because of the free speech and First Amendment issues surrounding political ads on Facebook, Sinnreich says it makes more sense to require advertisers to adhere to stricter standards around political advertising.
“There are already regulatory mechanisms in place to restrict the behaviors of PACs and campaigns,” he told InsideSources. “It’s absolutely the case that the regulator should prevent them from lying in their advertisements.”
Hundreds of Facebook employees also recently signed a letter calling on their company to “hold political ads to the same standards as other ads” and impose spending caps on all politicians trying to buy ads on the platform. They believe measures like these could help prevent lying ads.
But Layton said that once you start trying to fact-check political ads, you won’t be able to run any of them, because all politicians exaggerate and lie — Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Transparency, [having Facebook disclose] who paid for the ad, ok, that was a good step, but it will never be enough,” she said. “They have some standards around it but I would say fact-checking would put both political parties out of the ad business.”