✺ How should political advertising be regulated in an age of targeted advertising?
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This week we talk about Facebook’s decision not to fact-check their ads, why is there a lot of misguided anger towards Facebook, and why this issue matters to you. A few questions we are looking to answer in this issue are:
How should political advertising be regulated in an age of targeted advertising?
How is technology helping or hurting a core part of our democracy: political campaigns?
Let’s try to make sense of it.
✺ Start Here
1️⃣What’s going on? With the 2020 election approaching, social media platforms have come under intense scrutiny about their policies around political advertising. A lot of that comes on the heels from a turbulent 2016 election where a lot of blame was put on social media platforms for allowing foreign countries like Russia to target voters with lies.→
2️⃣So what? In the age of fake news, the concern this time is about misinformation changing voters minds. Facebook’s announcement that it will not fact-check political ads on its advertising platform left a lot of people fearful that the platform will continue to enable candidates to spread lies for political gain. Facebook staked most of its defense on the “free-speech” grounds.→
3️⃣What else? To make matters more confusing, other companies like Twitter and Microsoft decided to ban political ads altogether. (Google will allow them in some cases.) Jack Dorsey’s twitter thread→
4️⃣Then what? The response to those events have been overwhelmingly negative towards Facebook. Facebook employees sent an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to consider changing the policy around; Film director Aaron Sorkin, who directed The Social Network, wrote an opinion piece on The New York Times claiming Facebook decision not to fact check was “assaulting the truth”→
5️⃣Finally? On the flip side others claim that the decision isn’t that simple. The Washington Post argues that banning political ads would hurt smaller candidates, while Mark Zuckerberg presented his defense →
✺ Take a Step Back
How did we get here?
Before we jump to conclusions it is always helpful to breathe and take a step back. It’s easy to immediately try to pick sides here, but what are some things we should understand before doing so? Here are a few points.
How did politicians advertise before platforms like Facebook and Twitter? The simple answer is the mail. Political parties have a large list of voters with addresses and phone numbers. In light of that, consider this: should the US Postal Service or FedEx open even single mailer that is sent to customers and check if they are true statements?
Why is it different online then? Here we have a problem of scale. While politicians have massive database of voters, they were never able to target specific voters with such precision and at such speed. This scale and targeting can work for good or bad. Remember: Obama used the same tools to get elected as Trump did.
How does the 1st Amendment and free speech come into play here? The first amendment tells us that you have the right to not be prosecuted by the government for speaking your mind. However the right to speak, doesn’t mean you have the right to be heard. Taking down your comment or your video from Youtube has nothing to do with violating the 1st amendment. You are free to broadcast those views, doesn’t mean I have to display them in my website.
What does the actual law say? In a key first amendment ruling, Judge Timothy S. Black said Americans should be free to battle out their political ideas without a government overseer ruling whether what they say is true. ‘We do not want the government deciding what is political truth — for fear that the government might persecute those who criticize it,’ Judge Black wrote in his opinion. ‘Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide.’”
But didn’t Facebook agree to censor some content in the past? Yes, CNN reported in 2015 that Facebook repeatedly censored ads in countries like Turkey, India and Pakistan. However, in those case they were following the local law. A common misunderstanding is that digital platforms are somehow above the law, or operate on a global level. Facebook, Google or Apple still have to abide by the laws of the country they operate in.
Don’t major TV news networks reject ads which they believe contain lies? Yes major news broadcasters like CNN choose to not display ads if they deem them inappropriate. This goes back to your right to speak vs. your right to get heard. It doesn’t mean CNN is abiding by some universal standard of truths and lies.
Why is this all such a big deal now? Despite the reports of Russian interference in the election being completely overblown (more on that on a later issue), the fact still remains that online advertising plays a major role in our elections and people are rightfully worried about the rules of the game this time around.
✺ Ask Big Questions
A few big questions we asked ourselves about this whole ordeal
Why does any of this matter? A core component of modern western society is the represented democracy, where we elect officials. A key part is for those officials to convince voters. Elected representative enact laws that affect all of us. Not only on a local level, but also on a global level. Anything that interferes or tips the scale should be of concern.
To put it simply, as a politician, should I be able to advertise something on Facebook or Twitter if it is a blatant lie? The easy answer here would be “no.” But on a deeper thought, what do we consider a “blatant lie” as a society? Most importantly who is determining what is truth and what is a lie? Consider this: Imagine. Facebook is not accountable to anyone if it decides something is a lie. Do we really want Facebook deciding what is the truth? Conversely as Judge Black pointed out, do we want the government?
Why is Facebook the only platform to allow political ads? From a cynical perspective you can argue that the decision is financial. Twitter makes a very tiny percent of it revenue from political ads as it disclosed. On the other side this really is a discussion based on principles. While you agree or disagree with his them, Mark Zuckerberg does stick to his principles in a decision like this. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg also emphasized that by arguing that this stance isn’t worth the hassle since political ads make up less than 1% of Facebook’s total revenue.
What to make of Jack Dorsey’s statement that “This isn’t about free expression. This is about paying for reach?” Again there is a difference here about the right to speak and the right to be heard, which is what Jack is alluding to. Many would argue that he is right on those grounds and that Facebook should allow ads but prevent targeting, since the people being targeted don’t have a choice to accept it or not as they do with mailers.
Shouldn’t the government be telling Facebook what to do? That is an interesting point and an extremely relevant one. The fact that there is a lot of guidelines and regulations around TV, radio, and mail campaigns but not around digital ads shows how much our institutions are playing catch-up to modern technologies. The FEC (Federal Electoral Commission) could impose restrictions that both Facebook and candidates would have no choice but to follow. There is still a question if that’s a good idea.
How can we solve this without setting a bad precedent or hurting smaller politicians? As we just mentioned, the FEC already has rules around disclosures candidates have to follow when advertising. A key one being that candidates have to “stand-by” their message. A simple solution here would be that all ads run by a candidate also have to appear on their Facebook home page.
✺ Our Take
Three things we take from this discussion
Embrace trade-offs. That’s a word that we’d like to see more in these discussions. New technologies, like the ability to target voters at this scale, often come with big tradeoffs. Instead of jumping to demand actions we should start to consider what are we losing by doing it.
Protect the future. We do not want a precedent where a private company like Facebook is the one drawing the line between what is a true and what is a lie. Full stop. The effect on smaller politicians could be devastating. For better or worse, targeted advertising allows smaller politicians to level the playing field.
Beware of power. One of the interesting aspects of this discussion is how little emphasis there is on the fact that a corporation can unilaterally decide what politicians in a free society can advertise. In this case we can argue that this was a good thing, but we should be scared this power exists in the first place.
✺ Go Deeper
If you want more on the topic
Ben Thompson at Stratechery has a phenomenal write-up about this topic. Tech & Liberty →
The Atlantic has a good write up explaining how Facebook advertising actually works→
This paper from researchers at Wesleyan University help explain why political ads are a big deal: voters see them more than they see TV ads. Political Ads Online and Offline →
That is all for this issue. Thank you for reading The New Brief. If you have any questions, comments or concerns please reply directly to this email. We will take a look at it with care. Have a great day.
See you next week,
✺ The New Brief Editorial Team