Facebook long has had a policy on misleading ads. In the words of company Product Management Director Rob Leathern, “Misleading or deceptive ads have no place on Facebook.”
Apparently that simple, declarative statement needed a huge asterisk, as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden found when he tried to get Facebook to pull a misleading ad run by the Trump campaign. The policy doesn’t apply to political ads.
The ad Biden wanted pulled — part of President Donald Trump’s shady efforts to embroil Biden in a controversy over the former vice president’s son’s work with a Ukrainian gas company — clearly falls into that category. Both Factcheck.org and PolitiFact found the ad deceptive.
But Facebook decided that it will treat ads from politicians as “newsworthy content” — letting them stand regardless of how misleading they are because the public interest supposedly outweighs the harm of the disinformation. Facebook figures every reader who sees a political advertisement will have the time and inclination to verify every claim in it is true.
The reality, of course, is that such individually obsessive review is impossible. That’s why we have journalists and other factcheckers.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg doubled down last week in a Georgetown University address, claiming that the social network stands for “free expression.” He echoed comments he had made after a controversial series of secretive meetings with conservatives by saying, “The long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us.”
Challenging ideas that engender intelligent discourse are great. Deliberate falsehoods, not so much. Zuckerberg’s answer seems like nothing more than a ginned-up justification for Facebook to rake in millions of dollars by delivering misinformation that erodes informed democratic debate.
At Georgetown, Zuckerberg spoke high-mindedly about how Facebook has handed people the “power to express themselves at scale,” creating a “new force in the world.” But he did not acknowledge how that force was abused to communicate a misinformation campaign designed by a foreign power to interfere in the 2016 election. Did he learn nothing?
Creating a forum for free speech is a noble goal, but that forum needn’t and shouldn’t also be a place for deliberate misinformation and undermining the very democracy Zuckerberg claims to want to uphold. Political speech needs heightened protection, but not when it contains outright lies.
It’s hard to miss the double standard. When black users comment on social justice, too often their words wind up branded as hate speech and are deleted. Meanwhile, hateful diatribes against blacks, Muslims and other minorities remain untouched.
Then there are Zuckerberg’s secretive meetings with Tucker Carlson, Hugh Hewitt and other conservative commentators without any apparent corresponding meetings with liberals.
It all paints a strange picture. It’s almost as if Zuckerberg fears that the talk about Facebook’s assumed liberal bias might convince Trump’s politically compromised Department of Justice to bring some sort of anti-trust action against the company. So he’s doing all sorts of conservative outreach, including doing Trump a favor and refusing to take down a clearly false ad, to allay such fears.
Or maybe Zuckerberg is acting on his belief that Elizabeth Warren is an existential threat to Facebook and is using his enormous power to tilt the field in Trump’s favor.
Whatever the reason, if users can’t trust Facebook to do even the least bit of content moderation when it comes to political ads, there just might be something valid in the #DeleteFacebook trend.