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Platform integrity or ad revenues? Facebook walks the tightrope of political endorsement

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles October 17, 2019
Facebook has been trying to have its advertising cake, with the icing of platform integrity on top. But recent developments put Facebook's war-on-fake-news-pledge in questionable commercial territory once again.


Further evidence that Mark Zuckerberg never met a crisis he couldn’t make worse, Facebook’s charm-challenged CEO has escalated his ongoing feud with Senator Elizabeth Warren, a top Presidential challenger who, not coincidently, is the only candidate explicitly advocating for the breakup of Facebook and the other big social media monopolies.

The latest kerfuffle started last week when Facebook announced it had changed its advertising policies to exempt politicians and political parties from rules banning misinformation. In essence, the social media giant said that politicians are free to lie as much as they like in their advertising — it’s not our problem.

For a company still reeling from the blowback from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the extensive Russian disinformation campaign during the 2016 American election — not to mention one that has spent millions since then trying to shore up its defenses against coordinated propaganda attacks — it seems a curious admission that its so-called “platform integrity” efforts have fallen short.

Facebook made the policy change in response to requests from the campaign of former vice president Joe Biden to take down an ad that accused Biden of corruption in Ukraine. That ad, which has been viewed more than five million times on Facebook, falsely claimed that Biden offered $1 billion to Ukrainian officials to remove a prosecutor who was overseeing an investigation of a company associated with his son Hunter Biden.

The company responded that its approach:

Is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.

Even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere, if the claim is made directly by a politician on their page, in an ad, or on their website, it is considered direct speech and ineligible for our third-party fact-checking program.

Elizabeth Warren decided to challenge what she called Facebook’s “disinformation for-profit” stance by buying an ad that claimed Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Donald Trump for re-election.

Wrote Warren, who has also asked for the breakup of Google and Amazon:

Facebook already helped elect Donald Trump once because they were asleep at the wheel while Russia attacked our democracy—allowing fake, foreign accounts to run ad campaigns to influence our elections.

Facebook responded on Twitter:

Looks like broadcast stations across the country have aired this ad nearly 1,000 times, as required by law. FCC doesn’t want broadcast companies censoring candidates’ speech. We agree it’s better to let voters—not companies—decide.

That is a bit of a canard since the broadcast networks operate under more stringent rules because they use public airwaves. Social media platforms, cable TV, internet, and billboards are free to set their own rules and regularly do.

Warren tweeted :

You’re making my point here. It’s up to you whether you take money to promote lies. You can be in the disinformation-for-profit business, or you can hold yourself to some standards. In fact, those standards were in your policy. Why the change?

My Take

There are perfectly legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate about what and how much social media platforms should attempt to control sponsored political content. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives broad immunity to platform companies, but there is a danger that they could be stripped of that immunity if they exhibit political bias, or moderate in a way that disadvantages particular political candidates or viewpoints.

A bigger problem for Facebook is that Mark Zuckerberg has been behaving in his usual non-transparent (sneaky) way that makes Elizabeth Warren’s claim that he’s in the tank for Donald Trump seem plausible, even if unlikely.

Exhibit one is the unannounced White House meeting a couple of weeks ago between Zuckerberg and Trump, which was attended by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his digital media strategist Dan Scavino Jr. Once news of the White House visit came out, Trump released a picture of the two shaking hands after a “nice meeting.” Nothing wrong in meeting with the President but it’s the kind of thing that most business executives would be more eager to talk about.

There is the leaked audio of a two-hour rally-the-troops meeting when Zuckerberg assured his employees that he “will go-to-the-mat” if Elizabeth Warren (or anyone else, one presumes) tries to break up Facebook.

Then there are the reports that the Trump campaign has been spending a million dollars a week on Facebook advertising. With its ability to target voters who are likely to be receptive to Trump’s claims, that provides an advantage in molding opinions.

The real mystery is why is Facebook is bothering to continue being lambasted by both the free speech absolutists and those who believe it should be responsible for the veracity of the ads on its platform.

There is a simple solution. Political ads account for less than 5 percent of Facebook ad revenues. Don’t accept any political advertising. A smart CEO would take that deal.

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