Politicians have always had a problem with the truth. The game has always been to tell the voters what they want to hear until you get elected, and then ignore them until the next election comes around. The annals of political history are replete with candidates who tell one thing to one group of voters and something else entirely to another group of voters.
The internet has destroyed traditional journalism. Gone are the days when John Cameron Swayze, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, or Dan Rather brought the news into our living rooms every night at 6:30. Gone are the days when Woodward and Bernstein carried the full weight of the journalistic establishment on their shoulders.
Today, people get their news from a variety of online sources, ranging from Breitbart to InfoWars (or CleanTechnica). The new darlings of the news cycle are hate-filled proselytizers like Laura Ingram and Tucker Carlson. The news now comes in the form of tweets and short snippets on Facebook, Twitter, Google, SnapChat, Instagram, or WhatsApp. The internet has empowered everyone to say anything they want at any time on any subject. And it has made billionaires of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Cheryl Sandberg.
After the 2016 election, it was intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that fake news directed to microtargeted audiences had a powerful effect on the outcome. Whether the culprit was Russia, Republicans, white supremacists, or trolls under the polar ice caps, the only way to explain what happened — electing an unqualified reality TV impresario — is the influence those ads had on the electorate.
Congress took notice and made it a point to grill the top executives of several social media companies about their policies on political ads. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, took the lead last October when he banned all political advertising from his network. According to the New York Times, Dorsey based his decision on the “challenges that novel digital systems present to civic discourse.” Google also placed limits on political ads on some of its platforms, but made the restrictions narrower then those adopted by Twitter.
A Facebook Blog Post
In a blog post dated January 9, by Rob Leathern, director of product management for Facebook, the company said that after a lot of soul searching and internal debate, it has decided to continue allowing the posting of political ads, even those that are demonstrably false. It says it wants to make the activity of advertisers more transparent by expanding access to an Ad Library that shows every ad ever posted by any organization or political campaign.
“This is an important step in making political ads more transparent and advertisers more accountable: the public can see every ad served to anyone in an easily searchable database,” Leathern says. Facebook will also add controls that allow viewers to reduce or eliminate the amount of “issue ads” they see when they access the platform on their computers. The following is Leathern’s statement on political ads:
There has been much debate in recent months about political advertising online and the different approaches that companies have chosen to take. While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads.
Unlike Google, we have chosen not to limit targeting of these ads. We considered doing so, but through extensive outreach and consultations we heard about the importance of these tools for reaching key audiences from a wide range of NGOs, non-profits, political groups and campaigns, including both Republican and Democratic committees in the US. And when it comes to targeting our data actually indicates over 85% of spend by US presidential candidates on Facebook is for ad campaigns targeted to audiences estimated to be greater than 250,000.
Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies, which is why we are arguing for regulation that would apply across the industry. The Honest Ads Act is a good example — legislation that we endorse and many parts of which we’ve already implemented — and we are engaging with policy makers in the European Union and elsewhere to press the case for regulation too. Frankly, we believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this the better.
In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies. We have based ours on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public. This does not mean that politicians can say whatever they like in advertisements on Facebook. All users must abide by our Community Standards, which apply to ads and include policies that, for example, ban hate speech, harmful content and content designed to intimidate voters or stop them from exercising their right to vote. We regularly disallow ads from politicians that break our rules.
We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position. We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections.
We are grateful to everyone who has engaged with us over the past several months. With these changes, we believe we offer unprecedented transparency and control for political ads, and look forward to continuing the discussions and updates over the next year.
Facebook’s decision, telegraphed in recent months by executives, is likely to harden criticism of the company heading into this year’s presidential election.
Political advertising cuts to the heart of Facebook’s outsize role in society, and the company has found itself squeezed between liberal critics, who want it to do a better job of policing its various social media platforms, and conservatives, who say their views are being unfairly muzzled.
Congress, Do Your Job!
Leathern seems to be begging Congress to do its job, which is making rules to protect the citizens of the country from outrageous political lies. So far, members of Congress have blustered and thundered but done nothing to address the problem. That’s not surprising. They are so polarized today they can’t agree on whether the sun rises in the east or whether cows give milk.
Facebook is saying, in effect, it’s not up to us to make the rules, it’s up to Congress. It’s like asking John D. Rockefeller and his cronies to devise the first antitrust legislation themselves or investment bankers to regulate their own greedy behavior. Facebook may be correct when it says Congress should make policy. That is what it is supposed to do, after all.
The Trump re-election campaign, which has already spent $27 million to run ads on Facebook, praised the company. Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, told the New York Times with a straight face, “Our ads are always accurate so it’s good that Facebook won’t limit political messages because it encourages more Americans to be involved in the process. This is much better than the approaches from Twitter and Google, which will lead to voter suppression.” Can you imagine a Trump spokesperson accusing the opposition of voter suppression? Doesn’t get any weirder than that, does it?
Elizabeth Warren pulled no punches. “Facebook is paying for its own glowing fake news coverage, so it’s not surprising they’re standing their ground on letting political figures lie to you,” she tweeted. Bill Russo, deputy communications director for the Biden campaign, said in a statement, “Donald Trump’s campaign can (and will) still lie in political ads. Facebook can (and will) still profit off it. Today’s announcement is more window dressing around their decision to allow paid misinformation.”
Madeline Kriger, who oversees digital ad buying for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, said, “These changes read to us mostly as a cover for not making the change that is most vital: ensuring politicians are not allowed to use Facebook as a tool to lie to and manipulate voters.”
Mark Zuckerberg States His Case
Like many of his brethren in the world of technology, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has wrapped himself in the guise of an ethical and moral champion rather than one of the greediest people in human history. In a fiery speech at Georgetown University last October, Saint Mark told his audience he believed in the power of unfettered speech, including paid advertising, and did not want to be in the position to police what politicians could and could not say to constituents.
Facebook’s users, he said, should be allowed to make those decisions for themselves. “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he said, according to a report in the New York Times. Such arrogance is typical of tech tycoons like Zuckerberg.
A free and independent press is enshrined in the US Constitution as an indispensable component of a democratic society. As Brian McGrory, editor in chief of the Boston Globe, likes to say, “The function of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Any pretense that Facebook is a substitute for actual journalism is ludicrous. Its sole motivation is cramming more money into its corporate coffers by any means, fair or foul.
The internet has caught society unawares. A tool that was supposed to bring us all together so we could solve the problems confronting humanity has instead become a device for fragmenting us into smaller and smaller special interest groups. It is driving us apart rather than bringing us together, and Mark Zuckerberg is laughing all the way to the bank while posing as a champion of free speech. What a world technology has blessed us with.
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