Facebook Is Being Irresponsible with Its Stance on Political Advertising

I usually shy away from blogging about politics – it’s too inflammatory, even for me LOL – but hear me out here because I’m not advocating for Democrat or Republican. Nor am I pushing for a particular candidate in the upcoming presidential election. My gripe this fine Friday is with Facebook’s decision to not fact check political ads.

It’s incredibly irresponsible, lazy, trifling – as my mama would say – capitalistic, and it’s conveniently passing the buck on the responsibility that comes with being the largest, most influential social network in the world today. By taking this stance, Facebook is essentially refusing to accept responsibility for any influence it may inadvertently have on the upcoming elections and in the political arena in general. 

The company says its reasoning is rooted in support of freedom of speech. Lord knows, I have no beef with freedom of speech – where on Earth would I be without it? – but with all this talk about foreign interference in American elections. Well, let’s just say pernicious foreign influences do tend to buy their way in where they like, and buying and advertising are one and the same, no? 

According to an article from Business Insider, “we don’t fact-check political ads,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a wide-ranging speech at Georgetown University in mid-October. “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.”

The key bit there is “people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying.” But if the facts are wrong, or they’re presented in a misleading way by the opposition in a paid ad, people aren’t necessarily seeing what politicians are saying, are they?

I get that it’s advertising, and it’s social media. Those two things are subjective by nature. Nor are they subject to the same journalistic rigor as other types of content found on more traditional media outlets. So, we can’t reasonably expect that – if this was about a post or even a series of posts. But when your company is poised to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from selling political advertising, isn’t basic fact checking akin to ensuring the doll you’re selling to kids doesn’t contain lead or have lots of little parts that might choke them?

It’s basic, no? If you’re a reputable company, when you sell a product you likely should have some sort of quality control in place, if only to preserve your image, reputation and production value. It seems like Facebook agrees with me, at least a little, because the social network “is considering restricting politicians’ ability to use highly detailed demographic and personal information to narrowly target would-be voters with ads,” according to a Politico piece that came out yesterday. To me, that suggests the company understands perfectly well the depth and reach of its influence, and is compelled – for whatever reason – to mitigate potential damage therein.

Further, Facebook does employ third-party fact-checking for most of the ads that run on its platform. The company uses Poynter’s international standard for fact-checking, The International Fact Checking Network, and “that third-party fact-checker scrutinizes “public, newsworthy Facebook posts, including ads, with articles, photos, or videos.” Political advertising is the one exception to this rule. 

Why? Freedom of speech? Why do I get the feeling there’s more to this story? Could it be that by conducting even the most basic fact checking on political advertising many clients or potential clients would run afoul of the “standards” the social network throws around – when it’s convenient to do so? Despite the word fact, there is some editorial subjectivity involved. So, fact checking political ads could also open the door to accusations of favoritism, drama in general or legal liability if some advertiser gets a bug up their hind parts about not be allowed to say what they like to the public via that paid-for ad. It would also cost a few large bills to establish a team of reputable and effective fact checkers or to outsource it a respectable third party, and even that comes with some risk. 

Naturally Facebook doesn’t mention anything like that. The social network says its decision not to fact check political ads “is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is. Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words.”

There’s a few fairly sizeable holes in this explanation, though it certainly sounds decent on first hear/read. One, free speech is not the same as paid advertising. Two, because political speech is heavily scrutinized does not mean what we’re seeing is reputable, accurate or occasionally even reasonable. It’s often just the opposite. And that bit about limiting political speech, and leaving the people less informed about what their elected officials are saying is only valid if something is deemed factually inaccurate and pulled from ad runs for that reason. If that happens, that would ensure the public is not misinformed, which is in the same immediate family as informing them appropriately. Three, that bit about politicians not being accountable for their words sounds like concern that such a thing might not happen, but isn’t fact checking a key method to promote political message accuracy, thus accountability?

Now, I get it. Fact checking would naturally present a tough and troublesome line to navigate with regard to political subject matter. Twitter doesn’t want to fool with political ads at all for that reason. After the past few rough couple of scandal-ridden years, it makes sense that Facebook is a bit gun shy and risk averse, but come on now. It could be argued that by refusing to fact check ads, Facebook is actually taking a position. A position that says fake news and public brainwashing, excuse me, negative public political influence, is not our business. No, we’re in the business of making money, and as the top dog, the 90-pound gorilla of social media that no one has yet found a lasting alternative to, we can do it.

What do you think? Is Facebook taking the money and running away from the responsibility here? Or, does their freedom of speech defense hold water? Sound off in the comments. 

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