Facebook and Fiction: Could False Political Ads Threaten Democracy?

Evelyn Ford, Contributing Writer

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“We are champions of free speech and defend it in the face of attempts to restrict it. Censoring or stifling political discourse would be at odds with what we are about,” said Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg. Controversy has risen over Facebook’s policy on political advertising. Now, many are calling for change. 

Here is a summary of the policy: Facebook utilizes third-party fact-checkers to mitigate the spread of false news, but exempts some content posted by politicians. Claims or statements made by politicians are considered “direct speech” and are ineligible for third-party fact-checking. 

The direct speech policy allows politicians to blatantly lie to the public. 

Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren strongly disagrees with the policy. She claims that allowing ads containing false information to run on Facebook threatens democracy and advocates for the breaking up of big tech companies like Facebook. To prove her point, Warren put the policy to the test in October. 

Warren purchased a false ad on Facebook with the title “Breaking News: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.” Further down in the ad, Warren wrote, “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not.” Warren’s bold move illustrates the flaws of the policy by taking a shot at Facebook on Facebook. Ouch. 

Warren also tweeted that America needs to “fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anti-competitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.” 

Of course, Senator Warren isn’t the only politician posting false ads. President Donald Trump also took advantage of the policy to post a debunked conspiracy theory claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden offered Ukraine money for firing a prosecutor investigating a company connected to Biden’s son.

While Senator Warren believes that Facebook has a “responsibility to protect our democracy” by ensuring that political ads are correct, Facebook has a different stance on how they should protect democracy. Clegg stated, “At Facebook, our role is to make sure there is a level playing field, not to be a political participant ourselves.” Facebook claims that fact-checking political ads would interfere with the integrity of elections and that by not interfering with political ads Facebook remains neutral. But doesn’t posting political ads make Facebook a political participant? Yes. And does allow false ads to run really create a level playing field? No, it does not. Misinformation advertised as accurate could have a detrimental impact on elections. 

Clegg asks, “Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say? I don’t believe it would be. In open democracies, voters rightly believe that, as a general rule, they should be able to judge what politicians say themselves.” 

Clegg’s defense of Facebook policy is a strawman. Warren and others are not suggesting Facebook become a political referee, but that it does not allow politicians to publish blatantly false information.  

The idea of fact-checkers ensuring information handed to the public is factually correct is not crazy. When two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media, making sure that political ads on Facebook are accurate makes a lot of sense. Clegg makes it seem like Facebook will become Big Brother if they start fact-checking political ads, but Facebook can fact-check political ads for validity without becoming “referees for everything that politicians say.” 

Clegg states as well that voters should be “able to judge what politicians say themselves,” but most people aren’t fact-checking on their own. 

In a press conference, Zuckerberg made a similarly idealistic statement, “I just think that in a democracy people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying, and I think that people should make up their own minds about which candidates are credible.”

Concerns about censorship and vetting are completely valid, but an election is scary enough without having to wonder if the news you are receiving is accurate. If Facebook is going to run political ads, they should be truthful. 

“While I certainly worry about an erosion of truth, I don’t think most people want to live in a world where you can only post things that tech companies judged to be 100 percent true,” Zuckerberg stated, in a press conference. Zuckerberg is right. But the issue here is not about what the average person is posting, it is about political ads run by politicians and those ads should be fact-checked.