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The problem of political advertising on social media

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In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent $ 81 million on Facebook advertising. Just over a year until the next election, the candidates have already spent more than $ 63 million to market themselves on Facebook and Google. Trump’s campaign spent more than anyone else on digital ad purchases, totaling $ 24 million. Two of these advertisements, posted on Facebook on October 2, falsely accused former Vice President Joe Biden of offering Ukrainian officials a billion dollars to shut down a case against his son Hunter. The ads, seen by over four million people, include a six-second long video edited to make it look like Biden is openly committed to the plan. However, when the Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove the ad, the company declined. “Our approach is based on Facebook’s fundamental belief in freedom of expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is probably the most reviewed speech,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s audience-political Global Election Director, wrote to the Biden Campaign. “So when a politician speaks or makes a complaint, we don’t send it to outside fact-checkers.”

When held accountable for distributing hateful, distorted, and demonstrably false information, Facebook executives usually claim that the social network is just a neutral platform, detached from the content it contains. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, compares Facebook to a tennis court. “Our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the mesh at the right height,” he said during a speech in Washington last month. “But we don’t pick up the bat and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them. ”It’s a convenient but imprecise analogy. Facebook uses proprietary algorithms that promote some content over others; these algorithms are not neutral. Neither does the company’s idiosyncratic and inconsistent guidelines for moderating content intended to monitor website behavior. A recent BuzzFeed research found Facebook has rejected over a hundred political ads from Trump, Biden, Sanders, Warren, and others for not following Facebook’s design standards or its public decency guidelines. In one case, it turned down a Trump ad because it contained a clip in which Joe Biden said “son of a bitch”.

During an exchange with MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg struggled to explain his company’s publicity policy. “Could I run ads in primaries targeting Republicans saying they voted for the Green New Deal?” Ocasio-Cortez asked him. Zuckerberg replied, “Sorry, can you repeat that?” She did, then asked if he had a problem with “the total lack of fact-checking on political ads”. Zuckerberg looked confused. “Well, Congressman,” he replied, “I think lying is bad, and if you ran an ad that contained a lie, that would be bad.” It was a childish, almost innocent answer. Ultimately, such an ad on Facebook is not prohibited.

Making bogus claims about a political opponent has a long and historic history in this country. In 1800, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s camp falsely claimed that John Adams would lead the country to war against France. Lies have been a feature of political campaigning ever since. Newspaper publishers are not required to run political ads, but broadcasters are bound by the Federal Communications Act, which states that they “have no censorship power over the material they broadcast”. While they don’t have to broadcast political advertisements, there are strict controls on the channels, some choose and others reject. If false allegations are made, candidates are free to sue for defamation, but it is a high hurdle for a public figure to overcome. (There are some clear restrictions: for example, direct calls for violence or lies about the election date, which end up in the area of ​​electoral fraud, are not allowed.)

Although Facebook operates a live video service, it is not considered a broadcaster for the purposes of the FCC. YouTube isn’t either. Until December 2017, social media was exempt from the Federal Electoral Commission’s disclosure laws, which require political advertisements to indicate who is paying for them. Disclosure is proving critical, as we learned from the 2016 election when foreign agents used social media advertising to influence the outcome and exacerbate social divisions. (Facebook, which is where many of these ads appeared, began disclosure statements in May 2018.) The Honest Ads Act, first introduced in Congress by Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic Senator and Presidential candidate from Minnesota, in 2017, and reintroduced this year with Lindsey Graham as Co-sponsor to fill this gap. The goal, according to Klobuchar, is “to ensure that all major platforms that sell political advertising are subject to the same rules that are already required for television, radio and print advertising”. It was blocked by Senate Republicans on Tuesday. The disclosure has no relation to the content. There was no secret who was paying for Trump’s misleading Biden ads.

As necessary as it is to extend existing electoral laws to online media, it is also important that those laws recognize that Internet platforms, while sometimes playing the role of publishers and broadcasters, are something entirely different. Above all, Facebook is a “narrow caster”. It derives its power in the market from its ability to collect enormous amounts of data on people (they don’t have to be Facebook users) which it then uses to sell targeted ads based on personality, affiliation, demographics, and other very specific Attributes. Not everyone will see these ads, and that’s the point. Facebook’s tools and its unprecedented data store allow advertisers – both commercial and political – to test different approaches and identify users who are most vulnerable to their message.

Embedded in the protection of political speech in the First Amendment is the assumption that deceptions will be exposed and then rejected in the market of ideas. In Zuckerberg’s view, Facebook, although a private company, is the public space where such ideas can be discussed. But if political advertisements with false claims circulate only among the most receptive to them, there is little chance that the veracity of these advertisements will be openly discussed. Social media deliberately bypasses the marketplace of ideas. “We think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Zuckerberg said in a speech at Georgetown University last week, but that’s not how social media works. To that end, he added that the problem with the ads pushed to American Facebook users by Kremlin hackers during the 2016 election, many of which were deceptive and untrue, was that they were from a foreign country came from. They would have been permissible if they had been pumped out by people in the US. More than eleven million Americans saw these ads. Zuckerberg also reiterated his view that Facebook users should be able to say what they want unless it puts others at risk. But damage comes in many ways, as the aftermath of the 2016 elections shows every day.

Of course, Facebook’s duty of loyalty rests with its shareholders, not the public. Regulation, be it from the Federal Electoral Commission or Congress, threatens the bottom line, and some regulations – most clearly Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to break up big tech – threaten the very existence of the company. In September, Zuckerberg traveled to Washington to meet with Trump, who has made social media companies aware of their liberal bias. A few days later, the company announced its decision not to check political ads during the 2020 race. Shortly thereafter, Facebook denied Biden’s request, and the Warren campaign took the opportunity to troll Facebook with its own Facebook ad claiming that Zuckerberg supported Trump as president. It was deliberately wrong, as Warren himself revealed, and that was the point. “[Zuckerberg has] To give Donald Trump a free hand to lie on his platform, “Warren wrote,” and then pay Facebook chunks of money to spread their lies to American voters. “Obviously, malicious foreign actors are not necessary to poison the US To inject a stream of political discourse. The spread of falsehoods, fueled by algorithms designed to maximize advertising revenue, is a deceptive representation of the “free” in “free speech.”

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